RICHMOND — Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II on Wednesday sought to recuse his office from the felony embezzlement case against a former chef at the Virginia governor’s mansion, a move the chef’s attorney intends to fight.
Cuccinelli, the presumptive Republican nominee for governor, took the step two days after the attorney for chef Todd Schneider filed a motion in the criminal case suggesting that Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s wife and children had taken more food, liquor — even pots and pans — than they were entitled to from the mansion kitchen.
The filing also sought information about any gifts that McDonnell (R) and his family had accepted from Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the Star Scientific chief executive who paid the $15,000 catering tab at the wedding of one of the governor’s daughters. Schneider catered the June 2011 mansion reception through a private company he owned while working as the governor’s chef.
Cuccinelli’s recusal effort seems aimed at helping him make a clean break from all matters related to Williams and Star, a financially troubled company that is the subject of a federal securities investigation and two shareholder lawsuits. Williams gave the attorney general nearly $13,000 in personal gifts over two years, a fact that Democrats have played up in recent weeks.
Cuccinelli recently sold stock he owned in Star and recused his office from a civil tax case the company brought against the state. Cuccinelli also disclosed eight years of his tax records — an unusual move in Virginia gubernatorial politics, and one that put his Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, on the spot. McAuliffe, in turn, has released three years of tax summaries.
“When the details of the defense’s discovery motion emerged [Tuesday], it was very evident that defense counsel was looking to reach beyond the embezzlement charges and instead politicize this case,” Cuccinelli spokesman Brian J. Gottstein said. “The attorney general feels it is in the best interest of justice and getting this case resolved without any appearance of impropriety to recuse his office from it.”
The motion for recusal was submitted to Richmond Circuit Court Judge Margaret Spencer, who would appoint a special prosecutor if she grants the request. Paul Ebert, the commonwealth’s attorney for Prince William County, has agreed to take the case if the judge consents, according to the motion. A hearing is scheduled for May 2.
Steve Benjamin and Betty Layne DesPortes, the chef’s attorneys, objected to the recusal request. Benjamin also opposed appointing Ebert as special prosecutor, noting that a federal district judge threw out a capital murder conviction in 2011 on grounds that Ebert withheld exculpatory evidence. Ebert, known nationally for his successful capital murder prosecution of Washington area sniper John Allen Muhammad, disagreed with the judge’s findings at the time.
“My position is that never happened, and that’s still in the courts,” Ebert said Wednesday, noting that the case is before a federal appeals court. “I’m happy to serve the commonwealth any way I can.”
Benjamin also objected to a recusal because the attorney general’s office has never indicated that it had a conflict of interest while investigating the chef for more than a year. In its motion, the office does not lay out a rationale for recusal.
“This case is not about politics,” Benjamin said. “Mr. Schneider looks forward to resolving all questions in this matter consistent with the truth about what occurred and why.”
Gottstein said a rationale for the request will be offered at the hearing.
“On May 2, we intend to tell the judge our basis for seeking recusal,” Gottstein said. “Until then, we can’t comment any further on a case we are still litigating.”
In addition to accepting personal gifts from Williams, Cuccinelli owned stock in Williams’s company, Star Scientific Inc., a former cigarette maker that sells a nutritional supplement and facial cream made with an ingredient found in tobacco. Star is the subject of two shareholder lawsuits that contend Star exaggerated the promise of its products, sold under the name Anatabloc.
Cuccinelli initially failed to disclose that he owned Star stock worth more than $10,000, the threshold for disclosure under state law. He said that was an oversight, one he corrected in 2012, before recent media scrutiny of the company and its connection to prominent Virginia Republicans.
Until recently, despite Cuccinelli’s personal and financial ties to Star, his office represented the state in a civil lawsuit the company brought to challenge a state tax assessment. It handed that case to two private attorneys April 4 amid criticism from Democrats.
Cuccinelli’s office said at the time that there was no conflict of interest because he was not personally involved in the case. Gottstein said the move was prompted by a desire “to move past what has become an unnecessary distraction.”