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Ruling due in chef's case

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

RICHMOND (AP) — A judge said Monday that she will rule by the end of the week on a defense motion to dismiss embezzlement charges against a former Virginia Executive Mansion chef.

If Richmond Circuit Judge Margaret Spencer denies the motion, she would clear the way for a trial in a politically combustible case linked to top Republican office-holders three weeks before election day. Todd Schneider’s four-day trial is scheduled to begin Oct. 15.

Schneider faces four felony counts for allegedly pilfering food from the mansion kitchen when he worked as the chef for Gov. Bob McDonnell and his family. Schneider, who also owned a catering business during his two years as the governor’s chef, claims the administration directed him to take taxpayer-purchased supplies from the mansion kitchen as compensation for private and political events the governor required him to cater. He also alleges McDonnell family members took items from the kitchen for their personal use elsewhere.

The accusations threaten to damage McDonnell’s legacy as well as the campaign of the fellow Republican who hopes to succeed him, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

Defense attorney Steven D. Benjamin said at a 45-minute hearing that Cuccinelli should have withdrawn from the case early last year after Schneider told investigators and representatives of the attorney general’s office about “pervasive criminal conduct” by the McDonnell administration and family. Cuccinelli, who represents the governor and his administration, did not bow out until after Schneider was indicted.

“The attorney general made the decision to sacrifice Todd Schneider to protect his other clients,” Benjamin said.

Norfolk Commonwealth’s Attorney Gregory Underwood argued that his appointment as special prosecutor on May 2 resolved the conflict.

“The citizens of the commonwealth are entitled to a trial in this matter,” he said. “The defendant is entitled to a trial in this matter — a fair trial.”

Benjamin subpoenaed the Executive Mansion’s director, Sarah Scarbrough, to testify about private events that Schneider says he and other state employees were required to work without being paid. But the judge sustained Underwood’s objection to her testimony, saying Benjamin could submit the information in writing.

After the hearing, an attorney representing McDonnell’s interests in the case dismissed Schneider’s claims about being forced to work private events, saying the mansion chef is responsible for a broad range of events.

“The job is beyond just feeding the first family,” Anthony F. Troy told reporters outside the courtroom.

He said food and beverages taken from the mansion by McDonnell’s children were worth only a few dollars each time. Troy said most families pack some food for their children when they leave for college after a weekend at home. Nevertheless, Troy helped compile a list of items taken by the children over the last 31?2 years and McDonnell wrote a check for nearly $2,400 to reimburse the state Friday.

Of more significance, however, are the state and federal investigations that have arisen from the Schneider case. Authorities are investigating the relationship between the governor and First Lady Maureen McDonnell and Jonnie Williams, chief executive of troubled nutritional supplements maker Star Scientific Inc.

Williams and his company have donated more than $100,000 to McDonnell and his political action committee, and Williams has provided the governor’s family tens of thousands of dollars in gifts that the governor has not disclosed on his required statements of economic interest. That includes a $15,000 check for catering the 2011 wedding of the McDonnells’ daughter — a gift that came to light when Schneider reported it to investigators.

McDonnell has defended his decision not to disclose the gifts, noting Virginia law requires reporting only gifts given directly to officeholders, not to relatives.

Williams and Star Scientific, the subject of a federal securities investigation and lawsuits by shareholders, also have provided nearly $19,000 in gifts to Cuccinelli, including a lake house vacation and a catered Thanksgiving dinner. Cuccinelli has disclosed those gifts, though most went unreported until Cuccinelli amended his economic interest statements.

At the attorney general’s request, a Richmond prosecutor is investigating whether McDonnell and Cuccinelli violated disclosure law.

Cuccinelli, who was in Norfolk for an event Monday, told reporters he’s not concerned about the impact of the scandal on his campaign.

“I’m not worried,” he said. “I mean this isn’t related to me. So, you know, the case will take the course it should.”

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe’s campaign called Cuccinelli’s statement that the case doesn’t involve him “unbelievable,” saying one 14-page court filing mentioned the attorney general or his office 44 times.

Benjamin had asked the judge to compel Cuccinelli and an aide to testify Monday, but that was denied. Spencer also denied Benjamin’s motion to lift a gag order that prevents attorneys from commenting on the case.


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