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Carlson: Love, lies, luxury goods and a Virginia governor

Published: Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT

WASHINGTON – Romance, designer gowns, lavish parties, fast cars, private jets and lakeside mansions.

The federal trial of former Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia and his first lady on corruption charges features all that and more. If you’re headed to the beach, the transcript makes for riveting reading.

You’ll discover how the couple is trying to explain that Virginia businessman Jonnie Williams gave them $165,000 in loans and gifts because the governor’s wife, Maureen, had a crush on him and that the governor knew nothing about it.

“Another man,” attorney William Burck argued, was able to “invade and poison the marriage,” not to mention enrich it. Opposition researchers would spend years trying to get their hands on an email such as the one the McDonnells willingly proffered in court to prove their point. The bombshell, from Maureen McDonnell to Williams, on the occasion of a small earthquake near Richmond in 2011, read: “I just felt the earth move and I wasn’t having sex!!!!”

Excess exclamation points were hers, as was much, though not all, of the relationship between the McDonnells and Williams, then the chief executive of Star Scientific Inc., which made a dietary supplement. She reaped much of the showy goods: Oscar de la Renta gowns, Louis Vuitton bags and a Rolex to give to her (estranged, we are now told) husband. The governor got cash to help him with failing investments.

The McDonnells must have no other way out. Politicians don’t make a habit of shattering their own marriages in public. That’s what reporters are for. Before our eyes, the McDonnells, who used to be Ozzie and Harriet, are becoming Brad and Jen. They spent years selling the idea that theirs was a storybook marriage. Now they’re intent on tearing it down for public consumption.

They are spinning a variation on an old story, only the setting is unusual: a husband spending too much time on the job, a wife feeling neglected, and both feeling in need of cash. In walks a wealthy entrepreneur with multiple houses, a plane, an open wallet and a burning need. The rest, in the hands of crafty lawyers, is a Danielle Steel novel in which the last chapter will reveal whether that burning need was for the first lady, for whom no gift was too great, or for help in promoting the dietary supplement Anatabloc.

This has the former governor in the humiliating position of aggressively trying to prove his wife’s infatuation (if not infidelity) with another man to save his hide. If the marriage was all but over, the husband hardly can be expected to know what his infatuated wife was up to, nor would he be sharing in the loot.

This is a big leap given that, fake or not, a functioning marriage was on display for four years. In one picture taken when Jonnie had lent the couple his Ferrari, the McDonnells looked like two crazy kids in love about to take a spin with the top down. Who knew there was trouble in paradise?

One person we can be sure isn’t on board with this strategy is Williams himself, even though it could help him: Better to be the besotted fool than a conniving con artist buying government favors. But on the stand, Jonnie, who has immunity, said Bob McDonnell was aware of and benefited from everything as he was hardly going to write checks the man in charge didn’t know about. Of the 1,200 emails exchanged, Williams said 95 percent were business. “I didn’t know Mrs. McDonnell had any interest in me till last week,” Williams said, adding later, “I never had any contact with Mrs. McDonnell, any physical contact.” When the one about the earth moving was read to him, he said he didn’t recall it, but he thought it was funny.

This painful strip search of a relationship could be for naught. Even if the jury buys the claim that there was something more than civics going on between Jonnie and Maureen, there are hard-to-explain points of intersection between Jonnie and the governor, who tried to cover up them up.

McDonnell gave the mansion over to a promotional party for Anatabloc and set up meetings with regulators Jonnie needed to approve his questionable pills. The fact that the snake oil didn’t get approved is no defense. It’s possible the governor didn’t know Jonnie paid for the catering of his daughter’s wedding reception, but the mansion’s chef already has said otherwise. Then there’s the $50,000 loan to bail out the governor and his sister from an underwater real estate deal.

It’s a long fall from grace. McDonnell was a rising conservative star, with the emphasis on conservative. His graduate thesis extolled families with a stay-at-home wife, and as governor he backed a state bill requiring women seeking abortions to first get a transvaginal ultrasound, refused to expand Medicaid and lectured voters to live within a budget. Maureen, a blond and perky former Redskins cheerleader, dutifully stayed home and raised the kids. They did well: McDonnell was mentioned as a future president and was on Mitt Romney’s short list to be vice president.

Marriages are a mystery, sometimes to the people in them. The biggest surprise in this unfolding drama was that the governor didn’t accept a plea deal in January that would have spared his wife any charges. Perhaps they had already settled on the “she followed her heart” defense.

Thus the reverse family values tableau in a Richmond courtroom. We know politicians will do almost anything to attain higher office; some get married for purposes of a 30-second ad. In the second week of a four-week trial, we now see they’ll go to even greater lengths to stay out of prison.

• Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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