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When Political Spouse Helps Cause a Downfall

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Virginia’s first lady needed a designer dress for her husband’s inauguration.

When a political patron offered to buy her an Oscar de la Renta gown, fit for ladies who lunch or a Vogue cover shoot, Maureen McDonnell jumped, according to federal prosecutors, until an aide to her husband, Gov. Bob McDonnell, vetoed the gift. Ms. McDonnell sent off an angry email: “We are broke, have an unconscionable amount in credit card debt already, and this Inaugural is killing us!!”

In most tales of political careers destroyed by personal weaknesses, it is the officeholder’s spouse who has wound up embarrassed and humiliated. The wives of two former governors, Eliot Spitzer of New York and Mark Sanford of South Carolina, and of former Representative Anthony Weiner of New York, have often looked like stunned bystanders to their husbands’ sex scandals. The archetype has inspired a television drama, “The Good Wife.”

But there is another drama that plays out, too: the political spouse whose own misjudgment and taste for luxury contribute to an officeholder’s downfall.

In a 43-page federal indictment of the McDonnells, charging them with aiding a Virginia businessman in exchange for cash and designer baubles, prosecutors portray Ms. McDonnell as the person whose desires for luxury items led the couple to use the governor’s office to promote a contributor’s dietary supplement business.

A former Washington Redskins cheerleader who married her high school sweetheart, Ms. McDonnell, 59, treated herself to a shopping spree at Bergdorf Goodman, travel by Ferrari and private jet, and a silver Rolex watch to present to her husband, prosecutors said Tuesday.

Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster and consultant, said that political spouses are often stunned at how their lives turn out after marrying young, before a partner’s ambition for office takes hold. “There is the resentment of one person being in the spotlight and the other picking up Cheerios off the floor in her husband’s college sweatshirt night after night,” she said. “Just as new money makes people behave in certain ways, new power can have a tantalizing effect on some people.”

There are numerous recent examples of political couples who went astray.

Jesse Jackson Jr., who went to prison last year for stealing $750,000 from his campaign fund, often attributed his decision to run for Congress to his wife, Sandi, who was also convicted in the scheme. Mr. Jackson paid his wife hundreds of thousands of dollars as a consultant, and bought her furs and cashmere.

Newt Gingrich took out a Tiffany credit line of up to $500,000 to buy jewelry for his third wife, Callista, which became an embarrassment as he sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2011. When the couple left the campaign trail to cruise in Greece at Ms. Gingrich’s insistence, Mr. Gingrich’s political consultants quit en masse.

And Jeanine Pirro, a high-profile Republican former district attorney of Westchester County, N.Y., saw her aspirations to higher office serially undermined by her husband, Albert, whose boat she admitted seeking to bug out of suspicion that he was cheating on her. He also went to prison on tax evasion charges.

“I can’t count the number of discussions I’ve had with Republican and Democratic consultants about spouses,” said Stuart Rothenberg, the editor of a nonpartisan political newsletter. Although spouses often humanize a candidate in the public eye, behind the scenes they pose many potential dangers, he said.

“One of the reasons why media consultants and pollsters prefer working for ‘super PACs’ is they don’t have to deal with spouses.”

Male and female spouses alike can pose problems. Edward Mezvinsky derailed the career of his wife, a former Democratic congresswoman from Pennsylvania who was seeking a Senate seat in 2000, when details emerged that he had defrauded investors of more than $10 million. Mr. Mezvinsky received a seven-year prison sentence. His wife, Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, dropped out of her Senate race in the middle of the scandal. The couple later divorced.

A peril for political couples is proximity to the donor class of very wealthy Americans who increasingly pursue the game of political influence as the strictures on donations have been loosened in recent years by courts and lawmakers. Mr. McDonnell, who earned $175,000 a year as Virginia’s governor, first met the businessman whose cash and gifts he is accused of illegally soliciting, Jonnie R. Williams Sr., when Mr. Williams offered his private jet for use on the campaign trail in 2009.

“It is a quintessentially human story, isn’t it?” said Paul Begala, a Democratic consultant who was an aide to President Bill Clinton. “McDonnell spent his career in the military, then in the legislature, then as attorney general. He never made any money. All of a sudden you’re mixing with these billionaires.”

After Ms. McDonnell was told by a governor’s aide not to accept Mr. Williams’s offer of a designer gown for the January 2010 inauguration, she told Mr. Williams she would take a “rain check,” according to prosecutors.

In April 2011, she asked him to treat her to a shopping trip in New York that included $10,999 at Oscar de la Renta, some $5,685 at Louis Vuitton and about $2,600 at Bergdorf Goodman.

After telling Mr. Williams the couple did not know how they could pay for a daughter’s wedding at the Executive Mansion and were in severe financial difficulties, she asked for $15,000 to help pay a caterer, and $50,000 more to pay off credit card debt.

In a 14-count indictment charging the McDonnells with fraud, conspiracy and lying to banks, the Justice Department accuses them of using the office of the governor to help Mr. Williams promote a dietary supplement sold by his company, Star Scientific.

The McDonnells have proclaimed their innocence. Mr. McDonnell, a Republican who left office this month because of term limits, accused prosecutors on Tuesday of stretching the law to cover a relationship between him and Mr. Williams that involved no quid pro quo.

Prosecutors say the governor opened the Executive Mansion to a promotional event for Mr. Williams and ordered state officials to meet with him as he pitched his product. But the government has not shown material gains that Mr. Williams or Star Scientific got back.

In a meeting between Ms. McDonnell and Mr. Williams in August 2011, she admired his Rolex watch and said she would like to get one for the governor, the authorities say. Mr. Williams, who has cooperated with investigators and has not been charged, was skeptical Mr. McDonnell would wear such an expensive timepiece because of how it might appear. Ms. McDonnell asked him to buy a Rolex anyway for her husband, according to the indictment.

She gave the watch, engraved “71st Governor Virginia,” to her husband for Christmas.

Early in the new year, the governor and his two sons were the guests of Mr. Williams at his golf club, Kinloch, near Richmond. Their host was absent that day, Jan. 7, according to the authorities. The McDonnell men charged some $990 to Mr. Williams’s account for greens fees, $200 in caddie fees and $53 in merchandise from the pro shop.

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