Private lawyers for McDonnell, staff bill state $54,000

RICHMOND — The private law firm hired to represent Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his staff in the embezzlement case against the former chef at the governor’s mansion has billed Virginia nearly $54,000 for its first five weeks of work, according to documents released Monday.

About $24,000 of the bill was for legal work performed on behalf of McDonnell (R), said Tony Troy, the firm’s lead attorney on the matter. The remainder was for representation provided to McDonnell’s staff and for handling Freedom of Information requests related to the case, Troy said.

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Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II appointed Troy’s firm, Richmond-based Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott, to represent McDonnell and his office because the attorney general had conflicts of interest related to the chef case. The attorney general ordinarily would represent the governor and state employees.

The felony embezzlement case against chef Todd Schneider is at the root of a gifts scandal swirling around McDonnell, with federal and state investigations probing his relationship to wealthy businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. After Schneider was accused of pilfering food from the mansion, he turned whistle-blower, alerting authorities to gifts that Williams had provided to the McDonnell family, including $15,000 for a wedding reception that the chef had catered at the mansion.

McDonnell and his family have accepted luxury items, monetary gifts and loans from Williams, a nutritional supplement maker whose product was promoted by the governor and first lady Maureen McDonnell. Last week McDonnell apologized for the scandal and announced that he had repaid $120,000 in loans.

McDonnell has a private legal team, financed with a legal defense fund, working on his behalf in the ongoing federal and state investigations.

Troy’s firm is being paid for by taxpayers to represent the governor and his staff in their official capacities in the chef’s case and matters arising from it.

In the firm’s first five weeks on the case, seven of its attorneys and one paralegal logged a combined 225 1/2 hours on the case, resulting in a $53,530 legal bill. The firm’s work on the matter continues. The chef is scheduled to go to trial in October. No one else is charged.

Most of the attorneys at the firm billed the state at the rate of $250 an hour, which is below their standard rate, the governor’s office noted. Two of the lawyers billed for $220 and $185 an hour. The paralegal billed at $170 an hour.

Troy and another lawyer, Jerrell E. Williams, worked nearly 100 hours on behalf of McDonnell in that first five-week period, between April 26 and May 15. That work resulted in a legal bill of $24,278.

That sum covers some, but not all, of the work Troy did to produce a three-page “external report” that concluded that Williams and Star had not received any state contracts or awards in exchange for the gifts. The billing period covered expenses through May 31. Troy started the report during that time but worked on it right up until its July 18 release, the governor’s office said.

Other lawyers at Troy’s firm and the paralegal worked a total of 126 hours over that period for unspecified members of the governor’s staff and on Freedom of Information matters stemming from the case. Troy himself put in 3.6 hours on those matters. They submitted a $29,252 bill for their services.

The governor’s office released a copy of the legal bill Monday under a Freedom of Information Request filed by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. It later provided a copy to The Washington Post.

Cuccinelli, the GOP nominee for governor, formally appointed Troy’s firm to represent McDonnell May 15, but representation had actually begun April 26, according to Cuccinelli’s appointment letter.

The attorney general’s office normally represents the governor in official legal matters. But he appointed the private firm because of two conflicts of interest Cuccinelli had with the Schneider case: that a key witness in the embezzlement case once worked for the firm that raises political funds for Cuccinelli, and that the chef was raising questions about McDonnell, whom Cuccinelli often represents in his official capacity as governor.

Cuccinelli, who also had his office bow out of prosecuting the chef, has his own ties to Williams. Cuccinelli initially failed to disclose $4,500 in gifts from Williams and his substantial stock holdings in Williams’s firm, Star Scientific. The attorney general has said the reporting lapses were oversight. A Richmond prosecutor reviewed the Cuccinelli’s financial disclosure forms and found no evidence that he broke the law.

 
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