From his vantage point in the kitchen of Virginia’s 200-year-old governor’s mansion, chef Todd Schneider said he watched as his bosses, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, grew close to a wealthy Richmond area businessman.
The businessman, Jonnie R. Williams Sr., chief executive of the dietary supplement company Star Scientific, was especially fond of Schneider’s fresh-baked oatmeal raisin cookies.
So in 2011, whenever Williams dropped by the mansion, the first lady would tell Schneider to make a batch.
“Jonnie liked certain things,” Schneider said, “and I had to do what he wanted.”
For months, Schneider has been the dramatic but silent figure who launched an investigation that has threatened to bring down one of the nation’s most popular governors. But he said now that his case is resolved and the governor is ending his term, it’s time to speak out.
It was Schneider who first alerted authorities that Williams had paid for catering at the June 2011 wedding of one of McDonnell’s daughters, a tip that spiraled into a broad criminal probe that has brought the governor to the brink of federal charges.
McDonnell and his family accepted more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from Williams while they were taking steps to promote Star Scientific.
Schneider provided documents about the wedding, which he had catered, but only after authorities starting questioning him about food they thought he stole from the governor’s mansion.
His motives have been debated: Was he out to get the McDonnells? A Democrat who had it in for a popular Republican? A low-level turncoat employee looking to escape criminal prosecution?
“I am not a bad person,” Schneider said in his first interview since the investigation began. “I want people to know that. I don’t think people know how bad this got for me.”
In September, Schneider pleaded no contest to two misdemeanors related to taking food paid for by taxpayers from the mansion.
“It was a horrible year for me,” he said. “I lost everything because of them. I lost my house. I lost my dogs.” He explained that he had to move in with his mother and give the pets to his neighbor.
Jason Miyares, a spokesman for McDonnell’s legal team, said they would not respond to “a fired disgruntled former employee.”
People familiar with the federal investigation say McDonnell and wife Maureen were alerted last week that federal prosecutors intended to charge them in connection with the scandal. But the decision was delayed after the governor’s attorneys appealed to top officials in the Justice Department. A final decision about whether to charge the couple is expected after Jan. 1.
It began with the wedding.
McDonnell did not publicly disclose that Williams paid $15,000 for the food at the reception. Virginia law allows elected officials to accept gifts of any value, provided they disclose those worth more than $50.
McDonnell has said there was no need to disclose Williams’s check because the law does not require that gifts to family members be reported. The catering was a wedding present from Williams to McDonnell’s daughter and her husband, who had decided to pay for their own reception, the governor has said.
But Schneider said it was clear to him that the McDonnells intended to pay for the services. The governor signed the contract and paid the deposits. And Schneider said the first couple, not their daughter, haggled about the price tag.
When his company’s general manager received a check drawn from the account of Williams’s trust, Schneider said he immediately grew suspicious.
“I said, ‘Copy that check,’ ” he said.
He also said Williams’s largesse was common knowledge at the mansion. Maureen McDonnell modeled for staff members clothing that Williams had bought for her on a New York shopping trip, Schneider said. Golf clubs arrived for the governor’s sons.
“I think we all knew what was going on,” Schneider said.
McDonnell has acknowledged that his family accepted the items but said he complied with state disclosure laws and did nothing to assist Williams or Star Scientific in exchange.
Schneider, 53, said he was running his own successful catering business in Richmond in 2010 when he was asked to take the job at the mansion.
He said he turned it down several times before he was persuaded that working in the historic home would look good on his résumé.
“Boy, was that a mistake,” he said.
The first lady could be a demanding boss, he said: She screamed at staff. She peppered them with angry texts until well after midnight.
In spring 2012, he said, all of the mansion employees wrote a joint letter complaining about working conditions and threatening to quit. They were told that the governor’s chief of staff was aware of issues and would work to improve conditions. A spokesman for the governor declined to comment.
Schneider said the McDonnells’ five adult children — the youngest of whom started college during the term — made life more difficult by taking food from the kitchen on weekends.
“I’d come in on Monday and the [Executive Protection Unit] would say: ‘Todd, the kitchen got raided again. You’ve got no food.’ ”
In July, McDonnell reimbursed the state $2,400 for food and supplies taken from the mansion to college by his children. He said that the reimbursement was unnecessary but that he decided to make the payment out of an abundance of caution in response to similar allegations raised by Schneider’s attorneys.
Schneider said he would compensate by bringing in food from his catering business. He also allowed the state to rent chairs, tables and other supplies from his business for large mansion events.
Schneider said his boss, the mansion director, agreed that the state would pay him for the rentals. But he then was told that state rules prohibited the commonwealth from paying him for outside work while he held a state job.
Schneider said he was told to take food from the mansion as reimbursement. Court documents show the mansion director acknowledged such a deal was in place in 2010 but that Schneider continued taking food after it had lapsed.
In February 2012, law enforcement officers showed up at his door. They said they were investigating a tip to a state fraud hotline that reported Schneider had been taking food from the mansion for use in his own business.
“I said, ‘No, we have an arrangement,’ ” he said.
Schneider said he has been told that the tip came from a former employee of his catering business.
Schneider was suspended, then fired.
Commercial databases of public records show that Schneider was found guilty of petty larceny embezzlement, a misdemeanor, in 2000. They show a felony embezzlement charge was dismissed.
Schneider referred questions on the history to Steve Benjamin, who has served as his attorney. Benjamin said Schneider thinks both charges were dismissed. Court documents and other records that could resolve the discrepancy have been destroyed.
As part of his plea in September, Schneider agreed to pay $2,300 to the state in restitution as a penalty. He served no time in jail.
A spokesman for the governor’s legal team said at the time that the conviction “completely discredited” Schneider’s “reckless allegations against the governor’s office and the McDonnell family.”
It is unclear whether Schneider is important to the ongoing federal probe.
Benjamin said Schneider was interviewed by the FBI once, in March 2012. He has not appeared before the federal grand jury.
Schneider said he was upset to learn that attorneys for the McDonnells have been trying to undermine the credibility of Mary Shea Sutherland, Maureen McDonnell’s former chief of staff, arguing to prosecutors that it was Sutherland who had been trying to curry favor with Williams.
“The governor and the first lady are throwing everyone they can under the bus,” Schneider said.
Schneider is now catering in Florida, where he lives.
Although still deeply in debt, he said he is trying to move on with his life. He wants to write a book about his experiences.
“I think I’ve learned from this, and I’ve moved on,” he said. “I think my best revenge is living well, and I’m trying to do that.”