RICHMOND — Maureen McDonnell was a whirlwind, zipping from book-signings and ribbon-cuttings to baby showers for military moms. She averaged nearly three speeches a month last year.
But the first lady of Virginia has scarcely had a public event in the past three months.
Her retreat from the spotlight has coincided with her emergence at the center of a growing investigation into gifts to her and her family from a wealthy businessman named Jonnie R. Williams Sr.
Williams sprinkled luxury items and big checks among several McDonnell family members, and recent revelations suggest that the first lady made the most aggressive grab for the good life.
She asked Williams to pick up the tab for a $15,000 shopping trip to Bergdorf Goodman in New York, people with knowledge of the gift have said. And after admiring Williams’s Rolex watch, she asked him to buy another one that she could give to her husband, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R). She received a $50,000 check from Williams, which the governor reported as a loan, as she confided financial stress to friends.
Some of Maureen McDonnell’s closest friends are surprised by the reports, saying she is as sweet as her public image. But some people she has worked with at the governor’s mansion and in state government paint a different portrait: one of someone unable to make the leap into the Richmond fishbowl.
They say she can be hard on staff, so much so that after several resignations, a team from Virginia Commonwealth University was summoned to the mansion to provide intensive workplace counseling.
The first lady’s spokeswoman declined to comment on Maureen McDonnell’s treatment of staff and referred questions about the VCU intervention to the governor’s office, which declined to comment. A VCU spokeswoman confirmed that in late 2011, the university’s Performance Management Group was brought in to assist the first lady in hiring.
Those people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid offending the governor and first lady, said Maureen McDonnell can be demanding and preoccupied with appearances — hers and that of the mansion.
As state and federal investigators look into the relationship between the McDonnells and Williams, the first lady is under scrutiny not only for receiving gifts but also for promoting a nutritional supplement made by Williams’s company, Star Scientific, which is based in Glen Allen, Va.
She made one out-of-state appearance to promote the product, called Anatabloc, to investors. She pushed Robert McDonnell’s wary staff to allow the governor to attend an Anatabloc product-launch party at the mansion, state e-mail records show. She arranged for a meeting between Williams and a top state health official, during which the Star executive made a pitch for using Anatabloc to reduce state medical costs, people with knowledge of the August 2011 meeting said.
As the scandal has unfolded, some of the governor’s allies have expressed hope that all of the blame might rest with the first lady — someone who gained a reputation for being unfiltered in the 2009 campaign, when she publicly dismissed rumors that her husband dyed his hair by divulging that he rinsed it with green tea. Some of the governor’s supporters said last week that those hopes faded amid reports of more gifts or loans, including $70,000 from Williams to a company owned by Robert McDonnell and his sister.
Still, Maureen McDonnell appears deeply immersed in the world of Williams, Anatabloc and luxury gifts. As the allegations threaten the governor’s legacy and political future, they also cast a shadow on her own ambitious work as first lady.
A charming go-getter
Until the scandal broke, Maureen McDonnell was best known as a disarmingly sweet ex-cheerleader, a go-getter willing to travel the state, slog through international trade missions — even parachute out of a plane — to boost Virginia wine, wellness, tourism and military families.
On a trade mission to China with her husband in 2011, Maureen McDonnell asked the world’s largest television network to do something it had never done before: make a show promoting travel to a U.S. state. She met with the head of state-run CCTV to make her pitch, starting formally by invoking the place of Thomas Jefferson and Virginia in American history but soon shifting into easy, laughter-filled banter.
“She charmed that guy — I was there — and they eventually came to Virginia,” said Alisa Bailey, former president of the state’s tourism office. “She’s a saleswoman.”
Maureen McDonnell began drawing intense public scrutiny in late March, when The Washington Post reported that she had promoted Anatabloc at a Florida investors’ conference and, with the governor, held a product-launch party at the mansion around the time that Williams helped pay for their daughter Cailin’s wedding.