Trial date set for McDonnell’s former chef


In this July 14, 2010 photo, executive chef Todd Schneider poses in the dining room of the Executive Mansion in Richmond, Va. (Joe Mahoney/Associated Press/Richmond Times-Dispatch)

The trial of the Virginia governor’s former chef has been scheduled for four days in October, setting the politically sensitive case just three weeks before Election Day.

Richmond Circuit Court Judge Margaret Spencer scheduled the trial for Oct. 15-18 after consulting with the prosecutor and the chef’s attorneys at an afternoon hearing Tuesday.

Todd Schneider, the former chef at the governor’s mansion, is charged with four felony embezzlement counts in a case that has entangled Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and the Republican candidate to succeed him, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II.

Spencer had planned to schedule the trial for two days, but Norfolk prosecutor Greg Underwood (D) said he thought three days would be needed because he had 24 potential witnesses. One of the chef’s attorneys then said four days were in order, and the judge agreed.

Underwood was making his first appearance in the case since Spencer appointed him on May 2 to take over for Cuccinelli’s office. She granted a request that day to recuse the attorney general’s office because of two conflicts of interest identified by prosecutors: 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, who as governor is Cuccinelli’s client in many matters.

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.

Spencer set a hearing for July 8 on the defense’s motion to dismiss on those grounds.

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

Schneider 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.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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