By Gary Robertson
RICHMOND Va. (Reuters) - Former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell and his wife were barely on speaking terms when they accepted $165,000 in gifts and loans from a vitamin company executive, defense attorneys said on Tuesday at the start of the pair's corruption trial.
Federal prosecutors described Robert and Maureen McDonnell as conspiring to take gifts from Jonnie Williams, the chief executive of Star Scientific Inc, in exchange for promoting his products.
But her defense attorney said Maureen McDonnell simply had a "crush" on Williams.
"At the time of this supposed conspiracy, the McDonnells' marriage had broken down and they were barely on speaking terms," defense attorney William Burck said. "(Williams) and Maureen McDonnell had a relationship some would see as inappropriate for people who are not married to each other."
Robert McDonnell, 60, is a Republican who had been mentioned as a possible 2016 presidential candidate before this scandal flared. He left office in January at the end of his four-year term.
Williams, who no longer works at Star Scientific, showered Maureen McDonnell with gifts, designer clothes, cash and attention, said Burck, who added that Williams frequently met Maureen McDonnell in private at the governor's mansion.
The McDonnells are on trial in U.S. District Court in Richmond on 14 criminal counts including conspiracy, bribery and fraud for accepting things ranging from a $50,000 loan to a $6,500 Rolex watch in exchange for using their influence to promote the products of Star Scientific, which has since changed its name to Rock Creek Pharmaceuticals.
"Williams wanted the governor to take official action to sell his products and Mr. McDonnell did exactly that," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Aber in her opening statement.
She charged that the McDonnells actively sought money from Williams as their finances worsened and the value of the beach rental properties the couple had invested in declined in value.
The couple has pleaded not guilty, saying that there is no proof that they agreed to use their power to help Williams. If convicted, they could spend decades in prison and face fines totaling more than $1 million.
Williams, who is scheduled to appear as a witness for the government during the five- to six-week trial, could not be reached for comment.
Prosecutors called their first witnesses on Tuesday, including the couple’s eldest daughter Cailin McDonnell Young.
Young broke into tears during her testimony as prosecutors probed the particulars of who paid for her 2011 wedding at the governor’s mansion, focusing on $15,000 Williams contributed for catering services.
The trial resumes Wednesday with Jerri Fulkerson, Williams’ assistant at Star Scientific, on the witness stand.
(Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Eric Beech and Eric Walsh)