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Maureen McDonnell Offers Cautionary Tale for Congressional Spouses

Maureen McDonnell offers a cautionary tale for Congress about the spouse's role. (CQ Roll Call File Photo).

Virginia’s former first lady, Maureen McDonnell, is heading to prison for a year and a day after she was found guilty of trading favors in return for loans, vacations and gifts. Her husband, former Gov. Bob McDonnell, has also been sentenced and is appealing the ruling. A onetime GOP star, his career is likely over.  

Much went wrong for the McDonnells. But there is one aspect members of Congress should note: A spouse’s lack of understanding of, or disregard for ethics rules can have disastrous consequences. Bob McDonnell spent years in the public eye, which came with a reasonable expectation he would be familiar with ethics rules and hire a staff suitable to the job; his wife had no such expectation. She lacked in the areas that could have protected her: She did not have the background or understanding to prepare her for the very public role of being Virginia’s first lady, and she was said to be difficult to work with and distrustful of staff, leaving them unable to advise her when she showed poor judgment.  

Members of Congress who run for office might have some inkling of what they’re getting into, but spouses can sometimes be caught unaware of what lies ahead , from scheduling expectations and financial disclosure forms, to ethics violations.  

Congress has a system to protect members and staff, but there is little formal training extended to spouses and families. All House and Senate staff are required to undergo ethics training within 60 days of their start date, and staffers in state and district offices can complete the training online.  

Senior staff are required to complete an additional hour of training once per congress. Since 2007, senators have been required to undergo ethics training. This year, for the first time, new members of Congress were required to undergo ethics training (though several claimed they didn't see the point).  

Yet for spouses, nothing is mandated. The House Ethics Committee, by request, led an informal ethics briefing for spouses  during new member orientation (and will do individual briefings by request). After the January swearing-in, new members and spouses were invited to attend a retreat in Williamsburg, Va., sponsored by the Congressional Research Service and the House, and there is some ethics programming as part of the three-day retreat.  

By request, the Congressional Management Foundation provides training to congressional offices and will occasionally include spouses in conversations. “We don’t get asked to talk to the spouse that much. We hear about it, though, and we help the staff manage [the spouse]. It falls into our effort to create a healthy work-life alignment in this strange job,” said Bradford Fitch, the CMF's president.  

Congressional spouses have their own support network through the Congressional Club, a private club that hosts lunches and programs to promote a “nonpartisan setting for friendships,” according to its website.  

Each of these organizations and trainings are voluntary. A congressional spouse opting out of such events has little to rely on for guidance except the member’s staffers, many of whom, as Fitch mentioned, may be reluctant to disagree with or alienate their boss’s partner. Congressional staff can call their respective ethics committees for information. But again, this implies the spouse has a relationship with the staff and knows to ask such questions.  

A state’s first lady has responsibilities, a staff, a security detail and ethics rules.  

Maureen McDonnell was hardly an ethics attorney. Her résumé includes working part-time at the State Department and attending community college (and yes, being a cheerleader for Washington’s professional football team). She had five children and credit card debt.  

She felt extreme pressure to dress well for the inauguration, but was concerned about how to pay for designer gowns. She alienated her staff, inundated them with petty requests (one report has her undressing and scrubbing the floor to show how it should be done properly), and was scared to go out in public. One email from a senior aide suggests the agoraphobic first lady needed “crazy pills.”  

It’s purely speculative to deduce things would have turned out less tragic for Virginia's former first lady if she had spent more time understanding her role and surrounding herself with people she trusted who could offer sound advice. But Congress should take McDonnell's story as a warning. As funding continues to be tight for staff and watchdog organizations such as the Office of Compliance are sidelined waiting for board members to be approved, Congress is gambling that its members and their spouses will be able to make sound workplace decisions with little to no formal training or the aid of others.  

For many, such decisions and understanding come easily. For someone like Maureen McDonnell, it did not. She’s paying a steep price — and she could have as much as a year and day to think about what could have been.  

Related: McDonnell Appeal Begs Question: What Is Corruption? Sometimes Congressional Spouses Need Staff Management, Too | Commentary The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.