Private lawyers bill Va. another $90,000 to represent McDonnell, office in chef-theft case

September 4, 2013

— A private law firm has billed taxpayers $90,000 for six weeks of work representing Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his staff in the embezzlement case against the former chef at the executive mansion.

The fees come on top of the $54,000 that Richmond’s Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott charged earlier this summer for its first five weeks on the case.

The firm was hired to represent McDonnell (R) and his office in their official capacities regarding matters related to the chef’s prosecution because Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R), who ordinarily represents the governor and his staff, had conflicts of interest.

About $72,000 of the bill was for legal work performed for employees of the governor’s office, and about $18,000 was for services for McDonnell.

Those legal services are separate from the criminal defense work that another private legal team is providing to McDonnell, who has been engulfed in a gifts scandal that came to light because of the embezzlement case. A legal defense fund has been set up to pay those bills.

After authorities accused former mansion chef Todd Schneider of stealing food from the mansion kitchen, Schneider went whistleblower, offering evidence that McDonnell and his family had received lavish gifts from a Virginia businessman, Star Scientific executive Jonnie Williams Sr.

The gifts included picking up the $15,000 catering tab at the wedding of one of McDonnell’s daughters. Schneider provided the catering for the event, which took place around the time that McDonnell and first lady Maureen McDonnell had promoted Star’s dietary supplement, Anatabloc.

Now, as the chef awaits his trial next month, McDonnell is the subject of ongoing federal and state investigations into his relationship with Williams, who also provided luxury items and $120,000 in loans to the governor and his family.

McDonnell has apologized for accepting the gifts but has also said he broke no laws and provided no state favors in exchange for Williams’s largesse. Virginia ethics laws, among the most permissive in the nation, allow officeholders to accept gifts of any size as long as they disclose those worth more than $50. Gifts to family members do not have to be reported. Most of the gifts to the McDonnells were not reported.

McDonnell’s office released the legal bills Wednesday in response to a request from the Richmond Times-Dispatch. It later provided copies to other news organizations, including The Washington Post.

Cuccinelli, the GOP nominee for governor, appointed Eckert Seamans because of two conflicts of interest in the Schneider case. A key witness in the chef’s case once worked for the firm that raises political funds for Cuccinelli. Also, Schneider’s defense has raised questions about McDonnell, whom Cuccinelli often represents in his official capacity as governor.

Cuccinelli has his own ties to Williams, although he did not note them when he appointed outside counsel or when his office asked to be recused from prosecuting Schneider. He received $18,000 in gifts from Williams. He initially failed to disclose $4,500 of them as well as substantial stock holdings in Star.

Cuccinelli has said the reporting lapses were oversights. He invited a Richmond prosecutor to review his financial disclosure forms and asked him to investigate McDonnell’s. The prosecutor found no evidence that Cuccinelli broke the law. His investigation of McDonnell is ongoing.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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