It wasn’t enough for Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell to embarrass the state, weaken the Republican Party and cripple his political career by accepting largesse from businessman Jonnie Williams Sr.
Now, he and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli have managed to stick state taxpayers with part of the legal bills for trying to fix the problem.
The state is picking up the tab for tens of thousands of dollars in private lawyers’ fees for helping the governor and his staff deal with the controversy over suspicious gifts and payments from Williams to McDonnell and his family.
The public shouldn’t let them get away with it. We should demand that the governor’s private defense fund pay for all the legal work related to McDonnell’s involvement in the gifts case.
The official explanation for making the state pay is that the gifts scandal is inseparable from what should have been a routine case over whether the governor’s former chef, Todd Schneider, pilfered food and toiletries from the mansion.
As attorney general, Cuccinelli normally would represent the governor’s office in the chef’s case. But he said in May that conflicts of interest forced him to bring in outside lawyers to deal with the chef and “related matters.”
Now those lawyers are spending a lot of time (and money) helping the governor and his staff deal with the Williams matter. It’s true that the gifts scandal arose from the chef’s case. That’s because Schneider is the one who blew the whistle on the suspicious interactions between the McDonnells and Williams, ties that are now the object of a federal investigation.
But the governor’s dealings with Williams are no longer directly relevant to whether the chef is found guilty in a trial scheduled for next month.
The two matters have been separate since a Richmond judge’s ruling in July. She rejected a bid by Schneider to escape prosecution, in which the chef argued partly that he never should have been charged owing to conflicts of interest among Williams, McDonnell and Cuccinelli.
Given that, why should taxpayers continue to pay to help the governor handle legal and public relations matters related to Williams?
Also to the point, because of the gifts issue, the state’s legal bills in the case are dwarfing the value of the fruit, soap and other items that Schneider allegedly embezzled from the executive mansion. The fees have already topped $250,000, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and will continue to climb. By contrast, the estimated value of the goods supposedly stolen by the chef — which he says he was authorized to take — is several thousand dollars.
In theory, the governor’s private defense fund is covering any bills related to McDonnell’s potential criminal liability as an individual in the gifts case.
By contrast, the state-paid lawyers are supposed to handle matters related to him and his staff in their official duties.
But when it comes to the gifts and interactions with Williams, it’s awfully hard to separate where the official duties end and his individual actions begin.
The difficulty is aggravated by secrecy over what work the fees are paying for. Citing attorney-client privilege, the governor and his lawyers are blacking out parts of the legal invoices that might explain.
“The problem is, there’s no transparency. The redacted bills, that doesn’t tell you anything about what they were doing, and at whose behest,” University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias said.
Tony Troy, the governor’s top state-paid attorney, said he couldn’t break down what part of his office’s time was going to the gifts issue and what part strictly to the chef’s case.
But we know Troy billed taxpayers for a report in July devoted entirely to allegedly showing that the governor didn’t take any official action to help Williams or his diet supplement company, Star Scientific.
Troy said the report was justified because the chef had suggested as part of his early defense that McDonnell had improperly helped Williams.
“All of it has become fully interrelated and is being looked into by a number of authorities,” said Troy, of the firm Eckert Seamans.
It might have been interrelated before, but it’s not anymore. The governor and his supporters should pay their own way.
I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/