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Virginia governor’s chef didn’t get criminal background check when hired

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RICHMOND — Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s administration acknowledged Tuesday that it did not know the chef at the Executive Mansion had been convicted of embezzlement when he was hired to work for the governor and his family two years ago.

McDonnell’s staff failed to conduct the required criminal background check on Todd Schneider, who recently left his job amid a police investigation after a tip about possible wrongdoing at the mansion.

Officials learned of Schneider’s conviction and his hundreds of thousands of dollars of debts from an article in The Washington Post on Sunday. A day later, administration officials determined that they had not instructed Virginia State Police to conduct a check as is the norm for political appointees.

The governor’s office blamed the mistake on a frantic first few months in office and a desire to quickly hire an executive chef for McDonnell (R) and Virginia’s first family after they moved into the mansion in January 2010.

It’s unclear whether the state neglected to properly vet other employees at the start of McDonnell’s four-year term, but the governor’s office says it was not a pattern.

“The hiring process for positions within the administration, including at the mansion, requires a full vetting of the applicant and a criminal background check,” McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin said. “There was a departure from this process in the case of Todd Schneider, who was hired very early in the administration.”

Secretary of the Commonwealth Janet Polarek and her staff are charged with vetting nearly 300 political appointees, including the chef and thousands of people named to boards and commissions.

Bill Daddio, retired associate director for protection for the U.S. Mint Police, said the state, like the federal government, should conduct criminal background checks as a matter of procedure. And, he said, it would be smart to do a financial check as well.

“Could the person have been violent? I’m sure they are aware of that possibility,” Daddio said. “I suspect they are embarrassed.”

Schneider, 51, is a well-known caterer in Virginia political circles. His Richmond catering business, Seasonings Fine Catering and Event Planning, had done work over many years for national and state politicians, including former governors Timothy M. Kaine (D) and George Allen (R) as well as U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), according to state and federal campaign records.

Schneider did not return calls seeking comment. Two people familiar with the matter said Schneider has retained lawyer Steve Benjamin, who declined to confirm whether he had been hired by Schneider.

Martin said Schneider did not disclose his criminal background when asked during his interview whether anything in his past would embarrass McDonnell or himself.

“No one currently involved in applicant vetting was aware of any potentially disqualifying information on record about him, nor was it disclosed during the interview process,” he said.

Martin said that if the administration had known of Schneider’s background, which also includes civil judgments and tax liens, he would not have been hired.

In 2000, Schneider was charged with three felonies — including embezzlement, according to court records. He received a six-month suspended sentence for misdemeanor petty larceny embezzlement, the documents say. It is unclear whether he pleaded guilty or was convicted in a trial.

State policy dictates that records for cases in general district courts older than 10 years be destroyed. The Richmond police, Richmond commonwealth’s attorney’s office and clerk of the court do not have Schneider’s case file, according to spokesmen.

Schneider has been taken to court by various people alleging debts. He has incurred more than $400,000 in debts over two decades, but much of that was in the past 10 years and all before he was hired at the mansion, according to court documents. He owed the Internal Revenue Service $171,526 in 2009, the state nearly $200,000 in 2006 and 2007, and thousands more to a variety of individuals and companies, including food vendors, a lawyer and a dentist. Records and interviews show some cases have been resolved, but the disposition of other cases remains unclear.

During that time, Schneider’s company was hired by Virginia’s top elected officials. Kaine hired his catering business for his lieutenant governor and gubernatorial inaugurations. Allen paid him $70,000 for a variety of events. The campaigns of Kaine and Allen, both running for U.S. Senate, declined to comment.

The chef trained with Martha Stewart. He counts former president Bill Clinton, former vice president Dick Cheney and movie director Steven Spielberg as clients, as well as companies such as Capital One and NBC, according to his Web site. He served as chef to former Florida governor Bob Graham (D), catered an event for former president George H.W. Bush in the Sunshine State and considers chef Paula Deen a friend, according to friends and published reports.

Schneider turned over his catering business to staff when he took the chef’s job at the mansion. Schneider, who was recommended for the job by a former mansion director, spent the past two years catering parties, first lady teas and family dinners for the McDonnells and their five children. He helped the first lady plant a vegetable garden behind the mansion and cater the wedding of the McDonnells’ daughter Cailin at the home this past summer.

State police spokesman Corinne Geller said officials are investigating allegations of “improprieties involving the kitchen operations at the governor’s mansion.” She said that no charges have been filed and that no arrests have been made.

The office of Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) is assisting in the inquiry because it involves state resources. “Per office policy, we can’t confirm or deny the existence of any investigation,” Cuccinelli spokeswoman Caroline Gibson said.

Schneider is the only person under investigation, according to officials with knowledge of the probe but who were not authorized to speak about it. The investigation began several months ago when someone called the state’s hotline for waste, fraud and abuse allegations. The nature of the allegations is unclear, and administration officials declined to comment.

John A. Spooner, the state’s internal auditor, said he gave the tip to the state police. Spooner declined to comment on the specifics of the tip.

Schneider was put on paid administrative leave Feb. 10 and left his job March 5. The governor’s office announced last weekend that Schneider no longer worked for the state. Officials said they were prevented from saying whether Schneider, who made $60,000 a year as the mansion’s chef, was fired or left on his own.

Martin said that since February the mansion has hired chefs as needed for its events, particularly during the 60-day General Assembly session, one of the busiest times of the year. The administration is interviewing candidates for a permanent chef.

Staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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