Former Va. first lady at heart of gift scandal
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) — Elaine Kubiak finds it impossible to reconcile the social-climbing, bullying and bizarre-acting former first lady of Virginia being portrayed in federal court papers and the media with the woman she’s known for two decades.
The Maureen McDonnell that Kubiak remembers was a thrifty woman of faith who cleaned the house and sprayed for bugs herself; who supplemented the household income by selling vitamins and making custom drapes on the sewing machine future governor Bob McDonnell gave her as a wedding present; who prayed over the car whenever one of their five children went out for a drive.
“I know her as a very, very nice, unassuming person, and a very frugal-living person — a very hardworking person,” said Kubiak, whose attorney husband worked and socialized with the ex-governor.
That is not how the U.S. Department of Justice sees it.
Barely a week after McDonnell left office last month, a federal grand jury indicted him and his wife on 14 counts each of trading on their influence to enrich themselves and family members. And while investigators say the once-rising Republican star accepted lavish gifts, golf outings and other favors in exchange for boosting businessman Jonnie Williams and his company, Star Scientific, the 43-page indictment paints Maureen McDonnell as the one who had her hands outstretched the most.
What started with a request for help purchasing a designer gown for her husband’s inauguration in 2009 ballooned into gifts of designer clothes and accessories, personal loans, a Rolex watch and a large check for her daughter’s wedding reception, prosecutors allege. In return, they say, Williams got special access to state officials, a reception at the executive mansion and McDonnell’s endorsement for what was to be Star Scientific’s breakthrough product : Anatabloc, an anti-inflammatory.
Both have pleaded not guilty. Bob McDonnell maintains he did nothing illegal for Williams “in exchange for what I believed was his personal generosity and friendship.” Maureen and her attorneys have declined comment .
“Awkward Cinderella trying too hard to fit in at the castle” read one headline in The Washington Post about the 59-year-old first lady when the scandal broke last summer.
Indeed, many in the state have wondered whether this was a case of a one-time middleclass girl trying to fit in to a new world and, in doing so, possibly crossing the line.
For much of her life, extravagance seemed to matter little to Maureen McDonnell.
Born in McLean, Va., she was the third of nine children to Frank and Geraldine Gardner, civil servants who met while working at the FBI — he as an agent, she as a stenographer. Gardner moved the family to Mexico in 1966 to take a string of consular positions.
Maureen attended a high school in the border town of Laredo, Texas, where she won a coveted spot on the high school’s nationally recognized dance team and was voted first runner-up for “most beautiful” her senior year . That same year, doctors discovered a tumor in one of her breasts. It was benign, but doctors told her she was predisposed to cancer — a warning that she credits for her lifelong focus on health care and wellness.
“That day in my youth governed my life,” she told a crowd at a women’s forum in 2010.
After graduation, Maureen followed her parents into civil service. She worked for a time with the FBI, then moved to the State Department, where she rose from secretary-stenographer to an assistant handling security clearances, according to a 2010 interview with Virginia Capitol Connections Quarterly Magazine. She also took classes at a Virginia community college.
During the summer of 1973, the 19-year-old was attending a party when she caught the eye of a young University of Notre Dame student.
After a three-year courtship, Bob McDonnell proposed over a four-pack of “cheap ale” in a grocery store parking lot, his wife told the Washington Post.
“It was very simple,” she said in the 2010 interview. “Our life always was.”
Bob McDonnell joined the Army, and the couple married in 1976 at Fort Belvoir in northern Virginia.
McDonnell’s career as a medical supply officer carried them to West Germany and back to Virginia, where Maureen gave birth to their first of five children, Jeanine, in 1981.
After graduating law school, Bob McDonnell worked his way up in the Virginia Beach commonwealth’s attorney’s office. In 1991, he won a tight election to the House of Delegates.
Even as her husband’s clout grew, Maureen remained thrifty, friends have said. The couple lived in middle-class neighborhoods in suburban Virginia Beach filled with one-story brick homes and traditional two-story colonials that are within earshot of Navy fighter jets roaring overhead. Their children attended public schools. If the kids wanted luxuries, they had to work for them. Jeanine mucked out stalls to pay for horseback-riding lessons, Maureen told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Robyn Deane says her former sister-in-law sold everything from vitamin supplements and skin-care products to home decorating items and teddy bears with Bible verses sewn on their chests.
“She was very much the enthusiastic entrepreneur,” Deane told The Associated Press.
A one-time cheerleader for the NFL’s Washington Redskins, Maureen brought her enthusiasm to promoting her husband’s political career. She was a big part of his successful 2005 campaign for Virginia attorney general and played a crucial role four years later in his quest for the state’s highest office, appearing in ads, using her rusty Spanish to court Latino voters and rallying women at campaign events.
Bob McDonnell’s relationship with Jonnie Williams dates to March 2009 when, the federal indictment alleges, members of his staff asked about using Williams’ jet in the gubernatorial campaign. But it was a postelection meeting in New York City that prosecutors say began the soon-to-be first lady’s too-cozy relationship with Williams.
Williams, the Post reported, mentioned that he was friends with designer Oscar de la Renta. When Maureen McDonnell asked for help finding a dress for the inauguration, the indictment alleges, Williams offered to buy her one.
“I need to talk to you about Inaugural clothing budget,” she wrote in an email to one of her husband’s senior staffers. “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!! ”
Staffers convinced her that such a gift would be inappropriate but, according to prosecutors, she told Williams “that she would take a ‘rain check’ from him.”
Once ensconced in the governor’s mansion, she oversaw renovations that included refinishing floors, repairing the roof and restoring ceilings. She launched a privately funded project to paint portraits of all surviving first ladies — including a depiction of her the blue inaugural gown she ended up wearing.
But behind closed doors, it was clear this was no Camelot.
Last summer, the Post quoted unnamed sources about an alleged incident in which Maureen McDonnell stripped down to her underwear to show a maid the proper way to scrub a floor, then insisted that two professional staffers do the same.
Former mansion chef Todd Schneider told Washingtonian Magazine that the first lady had a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” personality.
“If the first lady did not get her way, she pouted, screamed, yelled,” Schneider, who declined interview requests from the AP, told the magazine. Schneider was fired in 2012 amid a probe of what state police called “improprieties involving the kitchen operation at the governor’s mansion.”
By late 2011, things had gotten so bad that several members of the staff drafted a letter to the governor to complain about the hostile environment his wife had created, and threatened to resign. Several news outlets have reported about the letter, but it has yet to surface publicly.
An event held a few months later suggests the administration was trying to fix things inside the mansion.
On Jan. 4, 2012, the Performance Management Group at Virginia Commonwealth University put on a team-building event for the first lady’s staff that included role playing, leadership coaching and a working lunch session led by Maureen McDonnell.
“You listened when needed, inserted preferences appropriately and were very honest and direct in discussing some events of the past and how they might effect culture,” consultant Linda Pierce wrote to the first lady in a Jan. 5, 2012, email.
By early 2012, investigators were investigating Williams, which led to the first couple. Williams has declined to comment.
Schneider had helped cater the June 2011 wedding reception of the McDonnells’ daughter, Cailin, for which Williams chipped in $15,000, according to prosecutors.
Prosecutors say the Rolex, golf rounds, loans to purchase shares of Star Scientific and even rides in Williams’ Ferrari were all quid pro quo for the first couple’s help in promoting Star Scientific and its product, Anatabloc — including getting the governor to attend a launch party at the mansion for the supplement billed as billed as showing promise in treating Alzheimer’s disease.
In an August 2011 email to her husband and included in the indictment, Maureen McDonnell quoted an analyst who followed Star Scientific’s stock as saying, “I am utterly certain that Anatabloc is going to shake our political system to its very roots.”
The analyst was right. In a little over a year, Bob McDonnell went from being a possible running mate for GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney to fighting not just for his political future, but for his freedom.
Schneider, the ex-chef, pleaded no contest in September to reduced charges that he stole food from the mansion kitchen and was ordered to pay $2,300 in restitution.
Williams, who stepped down from Star Scientific, has not been charged. Anatabloc is still on the market.
The charges against the former first couple carry potential sentences of up to 30 years in prison and fines ranging from $250,000 to $1 million. Their trial is scheduled for July 28.
At their Jan. 24 arraignment, Maureen McDonnell, looking tired and visibly thinner, told the judge she was taking medications for “concentration” and “anxiety.”
Allen G. Breed is a national writer, based in Raleigh, N.C. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/AllenGBreed. Brock Vergakis can be reached at —www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis