Legal bills grow for taxpayers in McDonnell investigation


Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell gestures as he answers reporters’ questions in Richmond, Va., Monday, June 24, 2013. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

The list of publicly funded lawyers hired to deal with issues related to federal and state investigations into Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) is growing — as is the price tag for Virginia taxpayers.

According to documents released Friday by the attorney general’s office, a private lawyer charging $250 an hour was hired in August to handle inquiries at Virginia Commonwealth University from federal prosecutors examining McDonnell’s relationship with a wealthy donor.

Amy Austin, who is based in Richmond, charged the state $2,860.50 for her work with employees at the public university in August and September.

The number of lawyers appointed to handle matters related to the investigation is a sign of the complexity of a months-long investigation.

In addition to a lawyer for VCU, taxpayer-funded legal counsel has been appointed to represent Virginia State Police and the state police investigator working on the case with federal authorities.

Timeline: Star Scientific and Gov. McDonnell

In addition, two law firms have been appointed to represent the office of the governor and his staff. As of the end of July, they had billed the state $244,000 for their services. More-recent invoices have not been released.

Those firms are intended to represent the governor in his official capacity, as well as gubernatorial employees questioned about work they performed during their normal duties.

McDonnell has hired his own team of private lawyers, funded by a legal defense fund established by his allies, to mount a personal defense against possible criminal charges that he improperly assisted the donor. The governor’s wife, Maureen McDonnell, has also hired legal counsel.

The attorneys for the public agencies have been appointed in place of Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R), who has said he has a conflict of interest on the issue. Cuccinelli, who is running for governor, also accepted gifts from the donor, although a state investigation found he broke no laws.

Cuccinelli has cited other reasons for appointing outside counsel. At VCU, for instance, an outside lawyer was appointed because the university’s counsel did not feel he had the resources or expertise to handle the federal inquiry, a Cuccinelli spokesman said Friday.

Federal prosecutors have been looking into more than $150,000 in gifts and money provided by dietary supplement company executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. to McDonnell and his family.

In 2011, researchers at VCU received grants from the company, Star Scientific, to plan studies on a chemical found in the company’s new dietary supplement, Anatabloc.

A VCU doctor also attended an event at the governor’s mansion in August 2011 marking the launch of the product. E-mails show that the doctor was under the impression that McDonnell wanted to use state tobacco commission funds to expand the research.

McDonnell has denied that he sought the money, which was never awarded, or that he did anything to help Star or Williams that he would not have done for any state-based company. McDonnell has apologized for the situation and returned money he has said came as loans, as well as “tangible” gifts from Williams.

The Star investigations apparently grew out of a separate criminal investigation into food items allegedly stolen from the kitchen of the executive mansion by the governor's chef.

Last year, chef Todd Schneider told investigators about other potential wrongdoing at the mansion, including McDonnell’s relationship with Williams.

Cuccinelli said he could not represent state employees responding to those allegations since he was also prosecuting the chef, creating a conflict of interest. That resulted in the appointment of private lawyers to state employees.

But Cuccinelli appointed a special prosecutor to handle the chef case in May, and Schneider pleaded no contest to two misdemeanors related to the matter in September, concluding the episode.

Austin’s Aug. 9 letter indicates that she was appointed to handle “testimony, interviews or other inquiries related to an investigation by federal authorities of research grants provided by Star Scientific Inc.”

The bulk of the state’s legal fees on the case so far have come from the two firms representing the governor’s office.

In May, former Democratic attorney general Tony Troy and his Richmond-based firm, Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott, were hired to represent the office of the governor, charging up to $250 an hour.

A second firm, Baker & McKenzie, was appointed in July to represent employees in the governor’s office, charging up to $495 an hour.

All of the firms involved in the case have offered discounted rates, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office has said.

Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigations reporter for the Washington Post.

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