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McDonnell Lawyers To Target Former Chief Of Staff In Corruption Defense

Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, right, and his wife, Maureen, left, are surrounded by family and supporters as they leave Federal court in Richmond, Va., Friday, Jan. 24, 2014. 
(AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, right, and his wife, Maureen, left, are surrounded by family and supporters as they leave Federal court in Richmond, Va., Friday, Jan. 24, 2014. 

Though the corruption trial of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, isn't set to start until July, their lawyers have already signaled a key part of their strategy. They plan to attack the motives of Maureen McDonnell's former chief of staff, who was close enough to the first couple that she held her wedding reception at the governor's mansion.

In motions filed just hours after the former first couple was indicted last week, the defense team took aim at Mary Shea Sutherland. Defense attorneys allege that Sutherland took advantage of her state position and her relationship with the McDonnells to try to get a better-paying job with the company at the center of the corruption case.

An attorney for Sutherland declined to comment.

According to prosecutors, former Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams gave the McDonnells more than $165,000 in loans and gifts — including a Rolex watch and expensive dresses — in exchange for their help promoting his health supplement products. The McDonnells have denied any criminal wrongdoing. Part of the help given by the McDonnells, prosecutors said, was a launch party for a new dietary supplement at the governor's mansion hosted by Maureen McDonnell in August 2011.

But the defense team said the government's case is undermined by the fact that Sutherland organized the event while secretly trying to "ingratiate herself" with Williams in order to win a "lucrative" consulting contract when she left her chief of staff job. Sutherland, the defense said, was making a "backdoor" deal with Williams when she was hired "for the express purpose of providing guidance and protection to the governor's spouse — a novice in the public arena."

As evidence, the defense submitted an unsigned contract from August 23, 2011 — a week before the event at the governor's mansion — between Williams and a now-defunct fundraising and event planning firm, Benedetti & Farris. The contract called for the firm to provide services for Star Scientific for $9,000 a month. Sutherland was listed as the lead consultant on the year-long contract.

The defense also said that prosecutors have turned a "blind eye" to Sutherland's actions and failed to try to preserve any records from Benedetti & Farris that may have been relevant to the case. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office said prosecutors would respond to the defense motions in court.

Sutherland was a fundraiser who was paid $76,100 a year as the former first lady's chief of staff, the Richmond Times-Dispatch previously reported.

In 2010, Sutherland held her wedding reception at the governor's mansion, the paper reported. Pictures of the wedding posted online show the McDonnells in attendance, smiling and chatting with Sutherland. In one picture, the former first lady gives Sutherland a hug. In another, the former governor gives Sutherland a kiss on the cheek.

The chill in the relationship between Sutherland and the McDonnells mirrors that of the former first couple's relationship with Williams, whose credibility and motives the defense will likely attack with gusto at trial. In the recently filed motions, the defense characterized Williams as an unreliable witness trying to avoid prosecution for a variety of federal charges. Williams' attorney declined to comment.

In an interview with The Associated Press last August, Bob McDonnell commented on his fractured friendship with Williams.

"We had a very positive relationship for three or four years," McDonnell said. "Right now, we're just in a different situation."

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