For months, Cuccinelli didn’t know of McDonnell allegations, campaign says

Steve Helber/Associated Press - Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli speaks after his nomination as the Republican candidate for governor at the Virginia Republican convention in Richmond on May 18.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II’s staff purposely shielded him from allegations of improper behavior by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell for five months last year, knowing the attorney general was friendly with a key donor at the center of those accusations, according to new information released by Cuccinelli’s gubernatorial campaign.

Cuccinelli (R) had stayed at the home of Star Scientific Inc. chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. shortly after he took office in 2010, so Cuccinelli’s deputy “walled off” Cuccinelli from a separate criminal investigation into whether a chef at the governor’s mansion had embezzled food, campaign officials said.

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Cuccinelli's involvement with Star Scientific
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Cuccinelli's involvement with Star Scientific

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The timeline is significant because Cuccinelli owned stock in Williams’s company and sold some of it at a profit during this time frame.

But according to his campaign officials, Cuccinelli did not know of any issues with Star when he sold the stock.

The allegations against McDonnell arose in March 2012, when authorities confronted chef Todd Schneider with accusations that he stole food from the mansion for personal use. Schneider told a lawyer in Cuccinelli’s office that he knew of other alleged wrongdoing in the mansion. He said that Williams had paid $15,000 for the catering at the wedding of McDonnell’s daughter, even though it was McDonnell who had signed the catering contract and accepted financial responsibility for the event, according to court records.

But it was not until early August 2012 that Cuccinelli was first told by his chief deputy that Williams had some involvement with the chef case, Cuccinelli’s campaign officials said.

Cuccinelli was not fully briefed about charges related to Williams, including a federal securities investigation into Star Scientific, until two meetings in late September and early October, they said.

That would mean that Cuccinelli was unaware of widening probes into Williams and Star in mid-summer 2012, when he sold 1,500 shares of stock in Williams’s company at a profit.

He also would have known nothing of the case in June, when he stayed at Williams’s vacation home at Smith Mountain Lake, one of several trips Cuccinelli made there with his family.

The new timeline was released by the campaign in response to a detailed list of questions about Cuccinelli’s involvement with Star Scientific submitted by The Washington Post several weeks ago.

Campaign officials said the memo was prepared in consultation with Cuccinelli, his financial adviser, and current and former members of the attorney general’s office.

To corroborate the information, they released an April 2, 2012, e-mail from Deputy Attorney General Chuck James to two staffers, in which James mentions that the three had “discussed recusing the AG.”

In the e-mail, with the subject line “The Great Chef Caper,” James went on to suggest that the lawyers look for statutory authority that would allow someone other than the attorney general to authorize an investigation of an elected official, should that become necessary.

Under state law, Virginia State Police can investigate an elected official only if directed to do so by the governor, the attorney general or a grand jury.

In an interview, James — who left the attorney general’s office Aug. 15, 2012, and is in private practice at Williams Mullen in Richmond — called the campaign’s memo “absolutely consistent” with his recollections.

The sequence of events could also be important at a hearing Monday into the chef’s case.

Attorneys for Schneider have moved to dismiss four felony embezzlement charges against him, arguing in part that Schneider did not know that Cuccinelli had personal ties to Williams when he tried to blow the whistle about the governor’s relationship with the chief executive.

They say that relationship created one of a number of conflicts of interest in the case that denied the chef the benefit of a neutral prosecutor when he was charged in March.

Schneider’s attorneys had sought to compel Cuccinelli to testify at Monday’s hearing. But on Friday, a judge denied that request.

When the chef first made allegations against the governor, Cuccinelli had not disclosed that he owned more than $10,000 in Star Scientific stock, even though he is required by law to make such a disclosure.

Cuccinelli amended his annual financial disclosure forms in October 2012 to reflect his stock holdings. His campaign now says it was the full briefing his staff provided him for the first time that prompted the amendment.

In November, Cuccinelli directed Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Herring to review McDonnell’s annual financial disclosures, as required by law when the attorney general has “reasonable basis” to conclude that an elected official has knowingly violated disclosure laws.

Although Cuccinelli had disclosed receiving $13,000 in gifts from Williams, it took him more than a year to publicly acknowledge more than $5,000 in other gifts, including the summer vacation last year. After amending his form to reflect the omissions, which he said had been inadvertent, he asked Herring in April to conduct a review of his own disclosures as well.

McDonnell now faces federal and state probes into his relationship with Williams, including whether he or his wife accepted tens of thousands of dollars in unreported gifts from the wealthy businessman.

In their memo, Cuccinelli campaign officials say the attorney general never discussed his stock purchases or sales with Williams. They said he also purchased his shares on the open market — meaning that he did not take part in a “private placement,” a special stock sale offered only to select investors.

Star has publicly disclosed that it is the subject of a federal investigation into its private stock placements dating to 2006.

 
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