‘No one won in this,’ says chef who sparked McDonnell case

The man responsible for sparking the investigation that could send former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell and his wife to prison is now waiting at his home some 900 miles away.

The jury in the couple’s federal corruption trial has now deliberated for more than 13 hours over two days, leaving chef Todd Schneider in the same position as a national public that has become transfixed with the case. Just waiting to hear about the couple’s fate.

As the executive chef at the governor’s mansion, Schneider was a daily presence in the lives of Robert and Maureen McDonnell for nearly two years, until he was fired in March 2012, accused of stealing food from the mansion.

In response, he turned over documents to the Virginia State Police and the FBI that showed that a wealthy businessman had paid for the catering at the wedding of one of the McDonnells’ daughters.

That sparked a probe that ultimately landed the couple in the Richmond federal courthouse, charged with lending the prestige of the governor’s office to dietary supplement executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. in exchange for Williams’s $15,000 catering check, as well as more than $150,000 in luxury vacations, gifts and sweetheart loans.

A simple allegation from a Virginia chef catalyzed a criminal investigation about former Gov. Robert McDonnell. (Jeff Simon/The Washington Post)

In an interview this week, Schneider said he has intensely mixed feelings about the trial now underway in his former home town and his own role in causing it.

“In the long run, no one won in this,” Schneider said. “Everybody’s lives were ruined, mine included.”

Schneider, 53, offered up the information about Williams in an effort to avoid prosecution for using food purchased by taxpayers in his private catering business. Ultimately, he pleaded no contest to two misdemeanors and agreed to pay a fine. He said he moved to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., after business dried up in Richmond as a result of publicity over troubles at the mansion. He is now working as a caterer and party planner.

“Do I feel badly about it? Yes,” he said of providing the information that sparked the investigation.

“But,” he said, “I had to save myself, just like the governor is doing now.”

Still upset over his treatment at the mansion — he has long maintained that he took the food as part of a bartering system approved by then-first lady Maureen McDonnell — he said part of him feels “vindicated” that the McDonnells’ behavior was publicly exposed.

But he said he also feels sorry for Maureen McDonnell, a boss he once saw as a friend, whom he is now convinced is sacrificing her reputation in an effort to save her husband. Some of the most excruciating details from the trial have involved the first lady’s mercurial and erratic behavior. One former staffer acknowledged she told the FBI that she believed the first lady was a “nutbag.”

What Bob McDonnell said compared to what Jonnie Williams said.

An attorney for Maureen McDonnell declined to comment. Lawyers for the former governor did not respond to a request for comment.

Jurors did not hear Schneider’s perspective at trial.

Perhaps because of his own criminal charge or perhaps because he had little to add to the proceedings other than the catering documents passed to authorities long ago, Schneider was not subpoenaed to testify at trial by either the prosecution or the defense.

Instead, prosecutors called the manager of Schneider’s now-defunct catering business, who dealt directly with the McDonnells on the 2011 wedding. One of the first questions to the manager from the former governor’s defense attorney: Why was he testifying in place of Schneider?

“Good question,” the manager replied wryly.

If Schneider had testified, he said he would have told jurors that from his perspective, he believed the McDonnells were deeply in love and faced no relationship troubles more serious than any couple married for more than three decades.

In court, the couple’s attorneys argued that the former first couple could not have conspired with each other to strike a corrupt bargain with Williams. At the time, McDonnell testified, their relationship was in shambles, and he and his wife were barely speaking. Jurors were shown a heart-wrenching e-mail the former governor wrote to his wife in September 2011, begging her to help him save the marriage.

Schneider’s work took him inside the couple’s home and even sometimes the living quarters of the mansion.

“You could just feel it. You know when you feel something in the air?” Schneider said of the couple’s affection for one another. “Even when the spotlight was off, you would see them being cuddly and in love.”

Schneider recalled an incident in the fall of 2011, not long after McDonnell’s e-mail to his wife. Schneider and the first lady were drinking wine at the mansion one evening after work, “just goofing off, being silly with each other” when the phones in the historic home began to ring. Schneider said he eventually picked up, to hear the governor cheerfully inquiring “where’s my wife?”

“They kept tabs on each other,” he said. “They were a married couple.”

He noted that the governor testified that the two became so estranged that he would stay late at the office, in hopes that his wife would be in bed before he returned. But Schneider noted that Maureen McDonnell was not a person who generally went to bed early. He said he would often get texts from the first lady about the mansion’s food late at night, sometimes after midnight.

On one point, however, Schneider’s memory might have supported the governor: He said in late August 2011, Maureen McDonnell showed off a Rolex watch she was preparing to give her husband as a gift. Schneider’s birthday is in September, and he said he joked to the first lady, “Wow, is that for me?”

He said the first lady never told him that Williams purchased the watch. McDonnell testified that his wife gave him the $6,500 Rolex for Christmas that year. It came with no accompanying paperwork, and he thought it might be a fake. In any case, McDonnell told jurors he did not know that Maureen McDonnell had requested that Williams buy the timepiece.

As for a criminal verdict, Schneider said he will leave that decision to the jury.

“Hopefully, they do the right thing,” he said.

Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigations reporter for the Washington Post.
Matt Zapotosky covers the federal district courthouse in Alexandria, where he tries to break news from a windowless office in which he is not allowed to bring his cell phone.
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