Herring drops taxpayer-funded lawyers for McDonnell and former staff


Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (Steve Helber/AP) (Steve Helber/AP)

Attorney General Mark R. Herring on Thursday dismissed two law firms that charged Virginia taxpayers about $785,000 to represent the office of former governor Robert F. McDonnell and his staff in investigations related to lavish gifts that a businessman provided to the McDonnell family.

Herring’s predecessor, former attorney general Ken Cuccinelli II (R), had hired the private firms after determining that he had a conflict of interest in the matter.

The move represented Herring’s first decisive break from his predecessor since taking office Saturday.

A spokesman for Cuccinelli indicated a few weeks ago that taxpayers might continue paying for the firms’ services even after the attorney general and governor left office.

But Herring (D) campaigned on a promise to operate his office differently from Cuccinelli, who became involved in a number of high-profile conservative causes.

The outside-counsel issue was not a matter of partisan politics, but Cuccinelli had come under fire from Democrats and others over the rising cost of the private attorneys.

Herring spokeswoman Ellen Qualls said the attorney general saw no legal need for state representation of McDonnell (R) or his former staff members.

She said if such a need were to arise because of some official action unrelated to a criminal inquiry, lawyers could be provided by the attorney general’s office because Herring believes he faces no conflict of interest in the matter.

She said Herring spoke to the U.S. attorney investigating the case before making the decision.

Taxpayers had picked up the tab for the two firms, Eckert Seamans of Richmond and Baker & McKenzie of Washington, to represent the governor and his staff only in their official capacities.

Some of McDonnell's staff members have been interviewed or have had their records subpoenaed as part of the investigations into more than $165,000 in gifts and money characterized as loans that Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. provided to the McDonnell family.

McDonnell has a separate legal defense team, paid for with donations, to represent him in the criminal investigation. A spokesman for the defense team did not respond to a request for comment.

McDonnell has said he provided no state favors in exchange for Williams’s gifts.

McDonnell’s office has periodically released invoices from the two firms, but they were so heavily redacted that it has been impossible to judge the exact nature of their work.

Former Democratic state attorney general Tony Troy, who with his firm Eckert Seamans had represented the governor and his office since May, said the job was just about wrapped up anyway.

“The vast majority, 99.9 percent, has already been accomplished and done,” he said.

Brian L. Whisler of Baker & McKenzie, who was appointed in July, declined to comment.

Federal prosecutors informed McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, in late December that they intended to charge the couple in connection with their relationship with Williams. But the decision was delayed after the couple’s attorneys appealed to top Justice Department officials in Washington.

Troy’s office charged up to $250 an hour, and Baker & McKenzie charged up to $450 an hour — lower than their standard billing rates.

Cuccinelli’s office recused itself from the case after Todd Schneider, the former chef at the governor’s mansion, was accused of stealing food from the mansion kitchen and lodged the same accusation against members of McDonnell’s family. The chef had alerted authorities to the relationship between the McDonnell family and Williams, who paid for $15,000 in catering at the wedding of the governor’s daughter.

Cuccinelli said he could not represent the governor’s office while also prosecuting Schneider.

Cuccinelli also had accepted gifts from Williams, some of which he initially failed to disclose, although he did not cite that as a reason to hand off the case to private attorneys.

In another break with Cuccinelli’s office, Herring announced over the weekend that employees of his office will be prohibited from accepting any gift worth more than $100. Herring’s new policy mirrors an order adopted by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) for the executive branch.

Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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