RICHMOND — A judge ruled Thursday to recuse the office of Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II from the prosecution of the former governor’s mansion chef, appointing a Norfolk prosecutor to handle the embezzlement case instead.
The ruling by Richmond Circuit Court Judge Margaret Spencer lets the attorney general’s office out of the case, but it is unlikely to free Cuccinelli, the Republican nominee for governor, from all of its political entanglements.
The attorney for chef Todd Schneider made it clear at Thursday’s hearing that he plans to push the idea that Schneider is a whistleblower whose tips about alleged wrongdoing by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen, were ignored by Cuccinelli.
Schneider told investigators more than a year ago that a wealthy businessman paid for $15,000 in food at the wedding of McDonnell’s daughter but that the governor never disclosed the gift. Schneider catered the wedding through a private company he ran on the side while mansion chef. His lawyer, Steve Benjamin, argued that Cuccinelli, who had his own ties to Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr., did not pursue the matter.
The Washington Post reported this week that the FBI has been asking questions about gifts that Williams has provided to the governor and his wife. It is unclear what role, if any, the chef’s information played in sparking the FBI’s interest. McDonnell has said the wedding payment did not have to be disclosed because it was a gift to his daughter, not him.
Thursday’s court hearing drew about a dozen sign-bearing protesters and the spokesman for the Democratic Party of Virginia to the downtown Richmond courthouse. “Ethic Fail,” read a placard.
Cuccinelli said this week that Williams has little or nothing to do with the chef’s case. “He either embezzled food or he didn’t,” he said.
Schneider, a well-known Richmond personality whose Web site says he trained with Martha Stewart, became McDonnell’s mansion chef in 2010. He left the job in March 2012 amid a police investigation into mansion operations and was charged a year later with four felony counts of embezzling more than $200.
Schneider has said McDonnell family members authorized him to take food from the mansion as payment for events he catered there through Great Seasons Fine Catering.
In the intervening year, Schneider offered state and federal authorities information on alleged wrongdoing by McDonnell and his family, Benjamin said in court Thursday. That included evidence that Williams had paid the catering bill at Cailin McDonnell’s mansion wedding in June 2011.
McDonnell did not disclose Williams’s gift but said there was no need to because it was a present to the bride, not him. Virginia ethics law requires elected officials to report receiving any gifts worth more than $50, but that rule does not apply to those bestowed on close relatives.
Cuccinelli has his own, initially undisclosed ties to Williams that Schneider’s attorneys contend should have led him to recuse his office from the case. The attorney general has received more than $18,000 in personal gifts from Williams and until recently owned stock in Star Scientific, a supplement maker.
The attorney general failed to disclose his stock holdings and some of those gifts, reporting errors he attributed to oversights. In 2012, he amended his disclosure form to reflect that he owned more than $10,000 in Star stock. That was well before recent media scrutiny of the company, now the subject of a federal securities probe and two shareholder lawsuits — but after the chef had offered up information about McDonnell and Williams.
Cuccinelli had previously reported $13,000 in gifts from Williams, but last week disclosed others worth $5,000 — including a stay at Williams’s Smith Mountain Lake vacation home last summer.
Those belated disclosures made it hard for the chef to know that he was blowing the whistle on one Williams beneficiary to another, Schneider’s attorneys contend.
Benjamin argued in court that Cuccinelli’s connections to Williams so tainted the case that it should be dismissed. Spencer cut short that line of argument, saying that prosecutors had not responded to a motion to dismiss the case on those grounds. She set a hearing for May 14 to take up that matter.
Cuccinelli’s office argued successfully to be recused from the case for reasons unrelated to the attorney general’s ties to Williams.
Senior Assistant Attorney General Patrick W. Dorgan argued in court that the office has a conflict of interest because a key witness in the case once worked for Cuccinelli’s political fundraising firm. Dorgan also noted that Schneider made it clear in a motion filed last week that he would raise questions about McDonnell’s actions as part of his defense. Dorgan said that line of argument presents another conflict for the attorney general’s office since the office represents the governor on many legal matters.
Spencer granted the recusal request with little comment, appointing Norfolk prosecutor Greg Underwood (D) to pick up the case.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.