By Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger
Virginia State Judge Margaret Spencer has an interesting decision tomorrow – one that could affect more than the criminal case involving the executive chef for Virginia’s Governor, Bob McDonnell. On the third floor of Richmond’s John Marshall Courts Building, Spencer will hear that Chef Todd Schneider was denied due process of law because the prosecutor at the time, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, had a political and personal conflict of interest that influenced his decision. Schneider’s lawyers, Steven D. Benjamin and Betty Layne DesPortes, contend that Cuccinelli, who is the GOP candidate for governor, was tied personally and politically to a Virginia businessman whose crumbling empire has launched FBI and State Police investigations as well as political headaches for McDonnell. Those ties, and Cuccinelli’s representation of McDonnell, made criminal charges against Schneider for allegedly stealing food from the Governor’s Mansion a political witch hunt, they say. They have asked for a complete dismissal of all charges.
The whole mess started when Republican bigwig, Jonnie Williams Sr., wanted to promote his dietary supplement company, Star Scientific, Inc. Mesmerizing Virginia First Lady and former Redskin cheerleader, Maureen McDonnell, with the pitch, Williams gradually developed ties with the governor and even used the Executive Mansion to pitch his anti-inflammatory supplement, Anatabloc, in a now infamous luncheon that the Governor attended despite his staff’s misgivings. Nothing scandalous as far as that went, but rumors began to circulate that Williams was doing more than just plying his wares and providing a few free samples. It is now confirmed that Williams gave the McDonnell family thousands of dollars in “gifts” — including a $15,000 check to pay for the wedding of the Governor’s daughter, a $6,500 Rolex watch the Governor won’t talk about, and a lavish New York City shopping spree for the governor’s wife including a $10,000 suede jacket — that were never reported. Virginia’s disclosure laws require elected officials to declare any gift valued at $50 or more, but does not require that gifts to the family of the governor be reported. Those gifts were in addition to the roughly $110,000.00 in disclosed campaign contributions he gave to McDonnell’s run for governor. However, that kind of cozying up by cash doesn’t sit well in Virginia, where the state’s reputation for good government is sacrosanct.
The confirmation of the undisclosed gift giving came from — you guessed it — Todd Schneider. When confronted with claims of felony embezzlement by the Capitol Police, Schneider went straight to the Attorney General’s Office of Ken Cuccinelli as well as the FBI and sang that all was not well in the Governor’s Mansion. He told them that state resources were being used improperly and that he could prove it. He also said the theft charges were bogus and that Maureen McDonnell had allowed him to take food in lieu of cash for serving as her personal shopper and handling catering events at the mansion like the Star Scientific product luncheon. The FBI launched an investigation; but Cuccinelli kept prosecuting until the Grand Jury returned four indictments.
Schneider’s lawyers were aghast and filed papers with Judge Spencer asking Cuccinelli to recuse himself. The Attorney General refused but then abruptly changed course turning over the investigation to Richmond Commonwealth Attorney, Mike Herring, a no-nonsense state prosecutor known for scrupulous adherence to the rules and fair play. But Cuccinelli did something else at the same time the announcement to recuse was made that only deepened the scandal. According to the Richmond Times Dispatch, the Republican candidate told reporters that he asked Herring to investigate him, too because he ” neglected to disclose an additional $5,000 in gifts from Williams, including airfare to New York City and two stays at his Smith Mountain Lake vacation home, one of which included a catered Thanksgiving dinner for the attorney general and his family.” Ouch. Now two of the top three Virginia Republican officials had fingerprints all over the Star Scientific mess and were faced with charges of succumbing to gift giving. Only Bill Bolling, in the largely ceremonial post of Lieutenant Governor, was spared.
And what was the Star Scientific mess? Well, it seems that Mr. Williams’ company has been losing money for ten years. Anatabloc was supposed to change all that. He reputedly owes the state a cool $700,000.00 in unpaid taxes and, to make matters doubly worse, he is being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission for his business dealings. That’s not exactly the résumé you want for First Family of Virginia’s BFF.
And what about the election year fall out? Political guru Larry Sabato says that if this trial goes forward in October, just weeks before the election, a power shift could happen in once reliably red Virginia. “The last thing the Republican ticket needs is for the final weeks of the campaign to be dominated by scandalous headlines about the incumbent GOP governor and his family,” said Sabato, who heads the respected Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “And even though Cuccinelli is certainly not close to the McDonnells, he has ties to this case … as well as to Jonnie Williams.”
McDonnell has fought back saying, “”I think it’s important that the people of Virginia know that nothing has been done with regard to my relationship with Mr. Williams or his company Star Scientific to give any kind of special benefits to him or his company.” But Virginians have become wary of McDonnell’s protestations especially since he clammed up about the Rolex.
Virginians don’t seem to like their choice for governor but they seem to like Cuccinelli less. The Virginia Democratic Party is running Washington power broker, Terry McAuliffe, as its candidate for governor. Former head of the Democratic National Committee and campaign chairman for Bill Clinton, he is the classic DC insider. But DC insiders don’t play well in Virginia even sons of famous football coaches. Just ask last go-rounds unsuccessful senatorial candidate, George Allen. Still McAuliffe holds a 3 point edge in latest Rasmussen poll but within the margin of error. And Cuccinelli appears to be taking the hit in his approval ratings according to a poll by Public Policy Polling which shows 44% of those polled expressing a negative view of the GOP candidate. That’s a full eleven points worse than McAuliffe.
“The governor’s race is shaping up exactly as expected — voters don’t care for either Ken Cuccinelli or Terry McAuliffe,” said Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling. “But at this point they have a bigger problem with Cuccinelli than they do with McAuliffe.”
That’s a recipe for disaster in anyone’s cookbook regardless of who is doing the cooking.
~Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger