Va. governor’s former chef alleges conflict of interest in seeking dismissal of charges

Joe Mahoney/Associated Press - In this July 14, 2010 photo, Todd Schneider poses in the dining room of the Executive Mansion in Richmond. Schneider has been indicted on four felony counts of embezzlement.

A former chef at the Virginia governor’s mansion asked a judge Monday to dismiss embezzlement charges against him, arguing that state Attorney General Ken T. Cuccinelli II has a series of conflicts of interest that have tainted the proceedings.

Attorneys for chef Todd Schneider say that he told state and federal authorities more than a year ago that a major campaign donor of Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) had paid $15,000 to cater the wedding of McDonnell’s daughter, according to documents filed Monday in Circuit Court in Richmond.

FBI looking into relationship between McDonnells, head of Star Scientific

FBI looking into relationship between McDonnells, head of Star Scientific

The agency wants to know whether there was a quid pro quo between Virginia’s governor and the donor.

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See the motion to dismiss indictments.
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See the motion to dismiss indictments.

At least one lawyer from Cuccinelli’s office was present at that meeting, the papers say. But the attorney general initially neither recused his office from the case nor ended his relationship with Star Scientific and its chief executive, Jonnie R. Williams Sr., who paid for the food at the McDonnell wedding.

In June and July 2012 — after Schneider turned over the documents about Williams — Cuccinelli made a profit selling 1,500 shares of Star stock at $4.70 a share, a near 52-week high for the company’s stock price.

He also vacationed at Williams’s home at Smith Mountain Lake in summer 2012, after Schneider had been interviewed by the FBI, state police and investigators for the attorney general’s office about Williams.

Schneider’s attorneys argued that Cuccinelli, the presumptive Republican nominee for governor, stood to gain financially and politically by forging ahead with his prosecution of the chef and trying to undermine Schenider’s credibility.

Cuccinelli said the filing is a distraction and has nothing to do with the case. “Jonnie has as close to nothing to do with whether that guy [Schneider] embezzled food or not as can be the case,” he said. “He either embezzled food or he didn’t, and Jonnie just doesn’t have anything to do with that.” The attorney general also said he lost money from his total investment in Star.

Williams’s attorney, Jerry Kilgore, declined to comment, as did McDonnell.

In the motion, Steve Benjamin and Betty Layne Desportes, Schneider’s attorneys, said that at a March 2012 meeting, the chef provided investigators with information concerning Williams’s “efforts to ingratiate himself within the mansion” with gifts to McDonnell, his wife, Maureen, and other members of the first family. That included the payments for the McDonnells’ daughter’s wedding in June 2011, a summer vacation in 2011, and the use of expensive cars and a private jet, the motion indicates.

McDonnell has said the catering was a wedding gift to daughter Cailin and did not need to be publicly disclosed. Virginia law does not require disclosure of gifts to immediate family members of elected officials. Schneider was the caterer for the wedding.

Cuccinelli amended his disclosure forms in late 2012 to reflect for the first time his stock holdings in Star. While he disclosed some gifts he’d received from Williams, he omitted others — including his 2012 summer vacation — revealing them publicly only Friday. He said the lack of disclosure was an oversight.

But Schneider’s attorneys argued that the fact that Cuccinelli delayed disclosing the extent of his relationship with Williams meant that the chef did not realize he was blowing the whistle about the governor’s relationship with Williams to another Williams friend.

Although Virginia law requires elected officials to annually disclose their stock holdings worth more than $10,000, Cuccinelli has acknowledged he failed to disclose the stock he held in Star Scientific until late 2012 — months after the chef turned over information about the company.

Schneider is charged with four counts of felony embezzlement.

Cuccinelli moved last week to recuse his office from the case. Lawyers on his staff will argue in a hearing scheduled Thursday that his office has a conflict of interest because many of the witnesses who will be called to testify are employees of the governor’s office, whom Cuccinelli also represents.

Also, the former chief of staff to Maureen McDonnell, likely to be a key witness, later worked for an event-planning and fundraising firm that has worked for Cuccinelli’s campaigns.

Schneider’s legal team argued that Cuccinelli knew those conflicts existed nine months before the chef was indicted, all while Cuccinelli was deciding whether to press charges.

Cuccinelli had an incentive to prosecute Schneider and compromise the chef’s credibility as a possible witness in a legal proceeding that would negatively affect Williams’s business and Cuccinelli’s political prospects, the chef’s attorneys said

“By failing to investigate others about whom Todd Schneider provided information and documentation concerning possible bribery, misuse of state funds, money laundering and tax evasion, the Attorney General has not exercised impartial prosecutorial discretion because such investigations would be contrary to his personal interests,” Schneider’s attorneys wrote.

As a result, the lawyers argued, the judge should not simply allow Cuccinelli to recuse himself but instead dismiss the case.

“This conduct is so egregious, the violation of Todd Schneider’s due process rights is so complete and the investigation of this matter so tainted by the continued involvement of the Office of the Attorney General for one year after the conflicts developed that the only appropriate remedy is dismissal with prejudice,” they wrote.

Laura Vozzella contributed to this report

 
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