McDonnell lawyer says children took minimal food from mansion
By Laura Vozzella and Rosalind S. Helderman,
RICHMOND — An attorney for Gov. Robert F. McDonnell on Monday vigorously defended him against allegations that his children had taken large quantities of food and household supplies from the governor’s mansion to their college dorm rooms.
But hours later, McDonnell’s office released documents showing that the governor on Friday repaid the state nearly $2,400 for hummus, “hint of lime” chips, toilet paper, body wash, deodorant and other items purchased with the mansion credit card and sent off to school with three of the governor’s five children.
McDonnell (R) also repaid the state $80 for a March 2011 shopping trip to Ellwood Thompson’s, a Richmond natural foods store, where state records show the McDonnells put a digestive system cleanse, cherry-flavored sleep elixir and a variety of vitamins on the mansion Visa card. Those non-grocery products added up to more than $200; the McDonnells only partially reimbursed the state at the time, with a check for $117.
Attorney Tony Troy said the children had taken “de minimis” — minimal — amounts, likening the situation to his own college years, when his Italian mother never sent him back to school without a cold meatball sandwich.
“Every family treats their children like that,” Troy said. “The first family shouldn’t be treated any differently.”
The Washington Post reported in June that McDonnell and first lady Maureen McDonnell had used taxpayer money to pay for a number of small personal items, including those purchased at Ellwood Thompson’s. McDonnell at the time called the report false and misleading.
Troy’s comment was the most vociferous defense provided for McDonnell since the former mansion chef, himself charged with embezzling from the mansion kitchen, alleged in court documents that the governor’s children had taken large quantities of food, alcohol and even pots and pans from the mansion kitchen.
It came as defense attorneys for chef Todd Schneider and prosecutors strictly observed a gag order that prevents them from publicly discussing all but the most basic information about the Schneider case, such as the schedule for court dates.
“If it’s interesting, I can’t comment,” Steven Benjamin, who, along with Betty Layne DesPortes, is representing Schneider, told reporters outside the courthouse. In court, Benjamin asked the judge to vacate the gag order, arguing it has put him at a disadvantage as Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) discusses the case publicly. The judge denied the request.
Troy is a private attorney hired at state expense to represent McDonnell (R) and his office in matters related to the chef’s case after Cuccinelli’s office was recused from both prosecuting Schneider and representing the governor in the matter. McDonnell, the subject of federal and state investigations related to gifts to himself and family members, also has a private attorney, Emmet T. Flood, a former White House special counsel.
Troy made his comments following an afternoon court hearing on a motion to dismiss the case. Benjamin argued that Cuccinelli’s conflicts of interest had irrevocably tainted the case. Richmond Circuit Court Judge Margaret P. Spencer said that she would rule on that matter by the end of the week.
His attorneys said the chef did not know that Cuccinelli had personal ties to Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. when Schneider told the attorney general about gifts to the governor and his family from the businessman.
The defense said that relationship created one of a number of conflicts of interest that denied the chef the benefit of a neutral prosecutor when he was charged in March.
After the hour-long hearing, Troy told a gathering of reporters that Maureen McDonnell would occasionally send her children back to school with a small amount of food to “tide them over.”
McDonnell said in a memo released by his office that Troy had advised him that he did not have to repay the state for the items his children took to college because “such expenses may be customary for first families with a returning college student.” McDonnell wrote that he would nevertheless repay the money “to ensure that there is no question that any potential personal expense has been reimbursed.”
Troy also took issue with the notion, raised by the chef’s defense, that Schneider had been ordered to cook for non-state or family events. Schneider, who ran a private catering company while at the mansion, has contended that the food he is accused of stealing was, in fact, in-kind payment for cooking performed for personal and political events that were outside the scope of his job as mansion chef.
Troy countered that the chef was an “at-will, 24-7 employee” who was expected to cook for all manner of mansion events.
“The job goes beyond feeding the first family,” he said. “You all have seen the job description. . . . He had to cater meals not just for the first family but for any sundry events.”
The state pays for “family meals/state functions and events,” but it does not supply “provisions for non-family meals and non-state functions,” according to 2010 state memo prepared by Dennis Johnson of the state’s Division of Selected Agency Support Services, which oversees mansion expenses. The memo does not say if the labor of state employees may be used for nonfamily or non-state functions.