RICHMOND, Va. — As Virginia's former governor Bob McDonnell took the stand Wednesday to defend himself against federal corruption charges, he talked about the strain that his call to public service put on his wife, Maureen.
For more than 20 years since he first ran for the state House of Delegates in 1991, he has been in office in Virginia: 1992 to 2006 as a member of the House of Delegates, 2006 to 2009 as state attorney general and 2010 until this January as governor.
"You're away from home a lot," he said. In the first 90 minutes of his testimony Wednesday, defense lawyers guided him through the story of his life.
He is expected to be on the stand for the next two or three days in the federal trial in which he and his wife are accused of accepting more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from wealthy Virginia businessman Jonnie Williams, then chief executive officer of Star Scientific, in exchange for promoting the company's dietary supplements.
Bob McDonnell said he got an inkling the day after his 2009 gubernatorial victory that his wife had reservations about being Virginia's first lady.
"I could tell she was not as happy as I was about the result," he said. At one point she was yelling at him, stressed about what to do and what to wear, but he reassured her that she would do a good job.
Prosecutors say the McDonnells conspired to use the governor's office for their personal gain. But the narrative that the couple's separate defense teams have woven has shown Bob McDonnell as an upstanding role model, Maureen McDonnell as an angry and unstable woman and the couple, married for 38 years, as barely on speaking terms.
Maureen McDonnell hated being first lady, said Director James Burke of the Performance Management Group at Virginia Commonwealth University, hired in late 2011 to help the Executive Mansion staff deal with its stress from Maureen McDonnell. At one point, he recommended that the first lady move back to the McDonnells' private home in suburban Richmond to ease her stress.
He also told the governor that his wife should seek counseling for anxiety and perhaps depression. Bob McDonnell rejected the idea but is expected to expand on the story of his strained marriage Thursday.
"He's got to be able to humanize himself and and relate and connect with the jurors," said Ted Kang, a former federal prosecutor not affiliated with this case who is a partner in the Washington office of Atlanta-based Alston and Bird law firm. "One of the jurors is going to hear his testimony and say, 'Hey this is not the type of scheming crook politician that the prosecution is making him out to be. This is an ordinary guy who has ordinary problems that I or one of my family members can relate to. I just don't think he had corrupt intent.' "
That's why Bob McDonnell's testimony will make or break the couple's case, Kang said.
"But he's got to tow the line and be able to take some personal responsibility, Kang said. "He may need to concede that he knew he was taking some gifts from Williams, that he knew what he did was wrong but not criminal."
Two years ago, Bob McDonnell was a leading figure in GOP politics and was discussed as a possible running mate for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. But a report that Williams had paid to cater the wedding of one of the governor's daughters led to a state police and FBI investigation.
While he was governor, Bob McDonnell apologized for the scandal that unfolded, repaid Williams' loans and returned all of the gifts that he was able to. Some of the largess that the McDonnells enjoyed from Williams was in the form of trips — travel on the entrepreneur's private jet; vacations at his multimillion-dollar house beside Smith Mountain Lake near Roanoke, Va.; a long weekend at a luxury resort on Cape Cod.
Ultimately, Bob McDonnell and his wife were charged in a 14-count indictment 10 days after he left office.
Contributing: Nick Ochsner, WVEC-TV, Hampton-Norfolk, Va.; The Associated Press