Former mansion chef raises questions about McDonnell family use of state goods

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

RICHMOND — The chef charged with embezzling from the Virginia’s governor’s mansion has filed a motion in his criminal case suggesting that Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s family has taken more than they should have from the mansion kitchen.

The lawyer for Todd Schneider, who lost his job as the mansion chef in March 2012 during a state police investigation into kitchen improprieties, is seeking “exculpatory information” to be used in his trial.

(Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images) - Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell

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Among other things, the motion seeks records concerning “state goods and resources” taken by McDonnell, his wife, Maureen, and their five children, including: “lodging and resources provided to Jeanine McDonnell during her residence at [gubernatorial retreat] Camp Pendleton, believed to be for several months in early 2012; bottled waters, cups, Gatorade, protein powder and other items taken from the mansion by Sean and Bobby McDonnell for use at their college residences; flats of eggs taken from the mansion by Rachel McDonnell; liquor taken by Rachel McDonnell or her boyfriend, Nick, from the mansion for a private party at Camp Pendleton; pots and pans from the mansion given to Jeanine, Rachel or Cailin McDonnell by Maureen McDonnell.”

Tucker Martin, spokesman for McDonnell (R), declined to discuss the motion, which was filed Monday.

“These motions made by a defendant in a pending criminal proceeding will be addressed by the appropriate authorities in court,” he said via e-mail. “It would not be appropriate for this Office to comment further at this time.”

Steve Benjamin, Schneider’s attorney, declined to comment.

The request itself is not proof of any impropriety by McDonnell or his family. But it seems to preview the defense strategy Schneider will use at the trial scheduled to begin July 15: that the governor’s mansion was operating with few financial controls.

With his questions, Schneider seems to suggest that McDonnell children not living at the mansion — either because they were away at college or grown up and living on their own — raided the state pantry, refrigerator and liquor cabinet.

A claim that the mansion had lax finances could embarrass McDonnell, a fiscal conservative who has prided himself on cutting waste from state government. The suggestion that Jeanine McDonnell lodged at Camp Pendleton in Virginia Beach for several months in early 2012 could prove awkward because he considered selling the beach cottage at the site early in his tenure to “keep a couple prisons open or something.”

The allegations could be especially damaging for McDonnell coming after revelations that a Virginia businessman picked up the $15,000 catering bill when his daughter Cailin held her wedding reception at the mansion in June 2011.

Schneider’s claims could help the chef, who owned a private catering company while employed at the mansion, argue that he was entitled to whatever food or supplies he is charged with embezzling. Some of his questions suggest that the mansion or the McDonnells failed to pay him for events his company catered, and that he was instructed to pay himself back by “taking it out in trade.”

While working as the mansion chef, Schneider catered Cailin McDonnell’s reception through his private company, Seasonings Fine Catering and Event Planning. The Washington Post reported that Jonnie R. Williams Sr., chief executive of Star Scientific Inc., paid for the catering.

Under Virginia law, officeholders may accept personal gifts of unlimited value but must disclose any worth more than $50. McDonnell did not report the wedding payment, but said he did not have to because it was a gift to his daughter, not him. State law does not require that gifts to immediate family members be disclosed.

McDonnell and his wife have taken steps to boost Star Scientific, a former cigarette maker that sells a nutritional supplement from an ingredient found in tobacco and other plants. The company has lost money for 10 years and is the subject of a securities investigation and two shareholder lawsuits.

The governor has declined to say whether Williams has provided other gifts to his family. He has said he does not know if people other than Williams helped pay for the wedding.

The investigation into Schneider began several months before his March 2012 departure, when someone called the state’s hotline for waste, fraud and abuse allegations. Schneider was charged last month with four felony embezzlement counts.

The motion filed on Schneider’s behalf seeks “information concerning all gifts given to the Governor or any member of the Governor’s family” by Williams or any entity he is associated with or controls.

It also requests information regarding instances in which he suggests that he provided “food, chairs, tables, plates, glasses, silverware, serving dishes, flowers, rentals, staff, pickup, delivery or other catering services” to the mansion, McDonnell or his family without being reimbursed.

And it seeks information about the mansion director, other state employees or members of the governor’s family allegedly telling him that he could pay himself back by “taking it out in trade,” meaning taking food from the mansion.

 
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