Cuccinelli appoints private lawyers for McDonnell in mansion chef case

Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said that the appointment was first reported by The Associated Press. In fact, the news was first reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The story has been corrected.

RICHMOND — Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II on Wednesday appointed a private law firm to represent Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his office in matters related to the criminal embezzlement case against the former chef at the governor’s mansion.

Cuccinelli (R) recently had his office recused from the prosecution of chef Todd Schneider due to two conflicts of interest. In his letter appointing attorney Tony Troy and four other members of his firm, Eckert Seamans, to represent McDonnell (R), Cuccinelli referred to “the practical conflict previously noted” by his office.

“I have been appointed to represent and assist the governor and the office of the governor,” Troy said in an interview about his appointment, which was first reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Schneider’s defense has indicated that he intends to raise questions about McDonnell’s conduct as part of his defense, raising the possibility that he would call the governor or members of his staff as witnesses.

“Due to a practical conflict of interest, The Office of the Attorney General has been recused from matters related to the prosecution of the former chef at the Executive Mansion,” McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin said via e-mail. “Due to this conflict it was also necessary for outside counsel, separate from The Office of the Attorney General, to be appointed to work with this office on these related matters moving forward.”


Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

Troy, a former Democratic attorney general, recently defended Cuccinelli against allegations that he had let politics govern his decisions as the commonwealth’s top lawyer. Troy was responding to comments about Cuccinelli made by Irvin B. Nathan, the District’s attorney general.

Cuccinelli and McDonnell have both become entangled in Schneider’s embezzlement case in ways that could affect the former’s bid for governor this year and the term-limited incumbent’s future prospects.

Attorneys for Schneider intend to argue that he is a whistleblower whose tips about alleged wrongdoing by McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were ignored by Cuccinelli.

Schneider says he told investigators more than a year ago that a wealthy businessman, Jonnie R. Williams Sr., paid for $15,000 in food at the wedding of McDonnell’s daughter but that the governor never disclosed the gift. Schneider catered the wedding through his private catering firm, Great Seasons Fine Catering. His attorneys, Steve Benjamin and Betty Layne DesPortes, have suggested in court filings that Cuccinelli, who has his own ties to the Star Scientific chief executive, did not pursue the matter.

Cuccinelli has received $18,000 in personal gifts from Williams and has owned substantial stock in his company. He initially failed to report the stock holdings and about $5,000 of the gifts. Cuccinelli said the lapses were inadvertent.

The Washington Post has reported that the FBI has been asking questions about gifts that Williams has provided to the governor and his wife. It is unclear what role, if any, the chef’s information played in sparking the FBI’s interest. McDonnell has said the wedding payment did not have to be disclosed because it was a gift to his daughter, not him.

In seeking recusal from the criminal case earlier this month, Cuccinelli’s office identified two conflicts of interest: that a key witness in the case once worked for the firm that raises political funds for Cuccinelli, and that the chef intends to raise questions about McDonnell, whom Cuccinelli often represents in his official capacity as governor.

The chef’s attorneys agreed that the attorney general had conflicts of interest in the case. But they contend that the conflicts went beyond those raised by Cuccinelli’s office and were so serious that the only remedy is to dismiss the case.

A hearing has been set for July 8 on the defense’s motion to dismiss on those grounds. The trial is scheduled for Oct. 15-18, three weeks before Election Day.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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