Less than a month before her husband's inauguration as Virginia governor, Maureen McDonnell sent an email to a senior member of his staff.
“I need to talk to you about inaugural clothing budget,” she wrote in December 2009. “I need answers and Bob is screaming about the thousands I’m charging up in credit card debt. We are broke, have an unconscionable amount in credit card debt already, and this inaugural is killing us!! I need answers and I need help, and I need to get this done.”
That email is now evidence in one of the most eagerly awaited public corruptions trials which began in Virginia yesterday.
In a 14-count indictment, former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen have been charged with accepting more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from Jonnie Williams snr, chief executive of a dietary supplements maker, Star Scientific, in exchange, prosecutors claim, for improperly helping to promote the firm’s products.
Prior to Mrs McDonnell’s December 2009 panicked email about her finances, Virginia’s first couple met Mr Williams for the first time, just over a month after his election as governor. At the meeting she asked Mr Williams’s assistance in finding a designer dress for the inauguration. He agreed to help.
After one of her husband’s staff told her it was inappropriate for Mr Williams to buy her an Oscar de la Renta-designed dress, she told the businessman that she could not accept it.
In April 2011 Mrs McDonnell asked Mr Williams to take her shopping in New York city for an Oscar de la Renta dress, telling him she would ensure he was sitting next to her husband at a political event he was attending. He agreed and paid for her shopping trip, spending about $10,999 (€8,029) at Oscar de la Renta, about $5,685 (€4,230) at Louis Vuitton and about $2,600 (€1,934) at Bergdorf Goodman. As promised, Mr Williams was seated next to the governor at the event.
Mr Williams’s other gifts to the McDonnells included $15,000 (€11,162) in catering expenses for a daughter’s wedding, golf trips and a holiday. In August 2011 Mr Williams agreed to Mrs McDonnell’s request to buy a $6,500 (€4,837) Rolex watch she could give her husband as a Christmas gift.
Mr McDonnell, governor of Virginia from 2010 to 2014, was once a rising star in the Republican Party, for a time considered a possible vice-presidential candidate for Mitt Romney in the 2012 election. This scandal has ruined his political career.
A descendant of Co Mayo emigrants, Mr McDonnell has met Taoiseach Enda Kenny in Dublin and Washington and lobbied the Government against its plan to introduce plain packaging on cigarettes.
The former governor, who was indicted 10 days after leaving office, said at the time he had been wrong to take gifts and loans from Mr Williams, who is now a star witness for the prosecution; but he insisted he had not broken the law.
A jury was being sworn in yesterday in Virginia’s capital, Richmond, at the start of a trial expected to last at least five weeks and hear from possible defence witnesses including Virginia’s former attorney general Ken Cuccinelli, who lost the race to succeed McDonnell as governor to Irish-American politician Terry McAuliffe.