Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

July 12, 2013

Judge refuses to dismiss ex-mansion chef’s case

Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. — A judge refused Friday to dismiss embezzlement charges against a former Virginia Executive Mansion chef, clearing the way for a trial in a politically explosive case involving top Republicans three weeks before election day.

Richmond Circuit Judge Margaret P. Spencer denied a defense motion to toss the four felony counts against Todd Schneider, who is accused of pilfering food from the mansion kitchen when he worked as the chef for Gov. Bob McDonnell and the governor’s family. A four-day trial is scheduled to begin Oct. 15.

Schneider, who also owned a catering business when he worked for the governor, claims the administration directed him to take taxpayer-purchased supplies from the mansion kitchen in lieu of monetary payment for private and political events the governor required him to cater.

He also claims McDonnell family members took items from the mansion kitchen for their personal use elsewhere. Last week, McDonnell reimbursed the state nearly $2,400 for items that his children took back to college with them after weekend or holiday visits, even though he maintained that no state guidelines were violated.  

The allegations of wrongdoing threaten to damage McDonnell’s legacy and any future political prospects, as well as the campaign of the fellow Republican running to succeed him, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

Schneider, who now lives in Sarasota, Fla., claimed Cuccinelli should have withdrawn from the case after he was told about the alleged wrongdoing by the McDonnells early last year. Instead, Cuccinelli did not recuse himself until after Schneider was indicted. On May 2, Spencer appointed Norfolk Commonwealth’s Attorney Gregory Underwood as special prosecutor in the case.

Spencer, who heard arguments on the motion to dismiss Monday, said in her order that three cases defense attorney Steve Benjamin cited to support his position were not persuasive because they involved prosecutors who had conflicts and were not replaced.

“In sum, the Defendant has failed to provide any authority supporting dismissal of the indictment as the appropriate remedy where pre-indictment prosecutorial conflicts of interest existed before appointment of a separate independent prosecutor prior to trial,” Spencer wrote.

Attorneys in the case are prohibited from commenting on developments because of a previously issued gag order.

The case has prompted a federal investigation into the relationship between the governor and First Lady Maureen McDonnell and Jonnie Williams, chief executive of troubled nutritional supplements maker Star Scientific Inc.

Williams and his company have donated more than $100,000 to McDonnell and his political action committee. Williams also has provided the governor’s family tens of thousands of dollars in gifts that the governor has not disclosed on his required statements of economic interest. That includes a $15,000 check to McDonnell’s daughter for catering at her 2011 wedding and a $6,500 Rolex watch that the Washington Post reported Williams purchased at the first lady’s suggestion and that she later gave to the governor.

The payment for the wedding reception came to light when Schneider reported it to investigators.

McDonnell has defended his decision not to disclose the gifts, citing Virginia law that requires reporting only gifts given directly to officeholders, not to family members. Gifts from immediately family members and close friends also are exempt, and McDonnell has said Williams is a family friend.

Williams and Star Scientific, the subject of a federal securities investigation and lawsuits by shareholders, also have provided nearly $19,000 in gifts to Cuccinelli, including nutritional supplements, a lake house vacation and a catered Thanksgiving dinner. Cuccinelli has disclosed those gifts, though most of it went unreported until Cuccinelli amended his economic interest statements to list gifts he said he had previously overlooked.

At the attorney general’s request, a Richmond prosecutor is investigating whether McDonnell and Cuccinelli violated the state’s economic disclosure law.