Virginia taxpayers may continue to pay legal fees for McDonnell, staff members


Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell speaks to the media after his presentation of the budget during a meeting of the House Appropriations and Senate Finance committees on Dec. 16 at the Capitol in Richmond. (Steve Helber/AP)

Virginia taxpayers may continue to foot the bill for two private law firms representing Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his staff in connection with state and federal criminal investigations, even after the governor leaves office Jan. 11.

A spokesman for Attorney Gen. Ken Cuccinelli II said Thursday that the appointments could continue after McDonnell’s term ends in nine days. Cuccinelli, who would ordinarily represent the governor, appointed the firms in his place after determining that he had a conflict of interest.

Invoices released Thursday showed that the two firms charged nearly $210,000 for their services between August and November, bringing their total fees to nearly $785,000.

McDonnell (R) has separately hired his own legal team, paid for by donors and allies.

But taxpayers are paying attorneys’ fees staff members who have been interviewed or had their records subpoenaed as part of the investigations, and to represent the interests of the governor’s office.

Federal prosecutors informed McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, late last month that they intended to charge the couple in connection with their relationship with a dietary-supplement executive, but the decision was put on hold after the McDonnells’ attorneys appealed to top Justice Department officials in Washington.

Ultimately, decisions about how to handle state-funded legal representation after McDonnell and Cuccinelli leave office will fall to Mark Herring (D), who will take over as attorney general on Jan. 11.

A spokeswoman for Herring said he will review the issue and make a decision after he is sworn in.

But Brian Gottstein, a spokesman for Cuccinelli, said the lawyers could continue to serve.

He said the appointments will end “when the part of the case regarding the governor and his staff acting in their official capacities is resolved.”

“In other words,” he continued in a written statement, “the appointments could continue after the governor’s term concludes. The same would happen for any state employee who is represented by the state in his official capacity, but who ultimately leaves state service.”

McDonnell has apologized for his relationship with businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr., who provided more than $165,000 in gifts and loans to McDonnell and his family. But the governor has insisted that he did nothing illegal and that he did not help Williams or his company in exchange for the largess.

Cuccinelli first appointed former Democratic state attorney general Tony Troy and his firm Eckert Seamans to represent the governor’s office in May.

The new invoices show that Troy and his colleagues worked 535 hours in August, September and October, charging $117,000 over the three months. The firm charges up to $250 an hour and has not released its November bills.

Cuccinelli later appointed the firm Baker & McKenzie to represent the governor’s staff members in July. Lawyers for the firm reported they worked 215 hours in October and November, charging $92,656. The firm charges up to $450 an hour.

Both hourly rates are discounts from the firms’ standard billing practices.

Herring is unlikely to determine that the need for legal counsel for former McDonnell staff members had ended. But he could evaluate whether he thinks a conflict exists that would prevent his office’s lawyers from handling the matter as part of their regular duties.

The conflict Cuccinelli cited has seemingly dissipated. Cuccinelli first appointed Troy to represent the governor’s office in response to allegations of wrongdoing raised by the former executive chef at the governor’s mansion. At the time, chef Todd Schneider was accused of stealing food from the mansion kitchen.

In response, Schneider alleged that McDonnell’s adult children took state-owned food and other items from the residence. He also told authorities about Williams, providing documentation to show that Williams had paid for the catering at the wedding of the governor’s daughter.

Cuccinelli reasoned that he could not represent the governor’s office as it responded to those claims because his office was prosecuting Schneider.

However, the federal inquiry expanded beyond the chef’s allegations months ago. Schneider’s attorney said in a recent interview that federal authorities interviewed the chef once, in March 2012, and that he has never appeared before a federal grand jury.

Schneider’s case was settled in September, when he pleaded no contest to two misdemeanors.

Throughout the recently concluded campaign for governor, Democrats charged that Cuccinelli had another conflict in the matter: He, too, accepted gifts from Williams, some of which he disclosed as required by law only after the governor’s entanglements with the businessman became public. That possible conflict also will end with Cuccinelli’s departure from office.

Herring also could reevaluate who should be responsible for monitoring billing for the attorneys.

In recent months, that role has fallen to Jasen Eige, the governor’s counsel. It also has fallen to Eige to periodically release invoices from the lawyers, distributing documents heavily redacted on the grounds that their contents are protected by attorney-client privilege. Those redactions have made a public assessment of the attorneys’ activities difficult.

In response to the size of the legal bills, the General Assembly probably will review rules for appointing outside lawyers when it meets for its annual legislative session beginning next week.

Del. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) has proposed a bill that would limit the fees that can be spent on outside counsel to no more than the amount paid to lawyers appointed to represent indigent clients accused of serious felonies.

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