By STEVE SZKOTAK, Associated Press
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Todd Schneider came with a lot of celebrity cachet when he was hired in 2010 as chef at Virginia's historic Executive Mansion and he was soon cast as the co-star with first lady Maureen McDonnell when a cable channel toured the governor's residence, the gardens he tended and the kitchen he ran.
As the beaming first lady looked on, Schneider served up a platter of oatmeal, raison and granola cookies to the host as the Lifetime show flashed still photos of Gov. Bob McDonnell, in a blue apron, working at a kitchen counter. "We're like a big family here," said Schneider, wearing crisp chef's whites, a handkerchief rakishly tied around his neck.
The celebrated chef who claims rarified connections to a who's who of politicians and celebrity chefs such as Martha Stewart no longer works at the mansion. He now faces trial this summer on charges of felony embezzlement for allegedly pilfering food from the governor's official residence.
But embarrassment over a few hundred dollars of missing groceries has risen to scandal. The towering, bearish Schneider, 52, has become a pivotal figure in a baroque, ever-evolving political potboiler involving questionable giving by the CEO of an obscure, struggling company to the state's two most powerful politicians — McDonnell and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.
Schneider's attorney has fired back, suggesting that the full scope of the scandal has yet to be revealed.
A judge has issued a gag order as the case against Schneider moves through a series of pre-trial hearings.
McDonnell and his spokesmen have declined to discuss the case, or explain how a politically connected Schneider ended up the kitchen at the oldest continually occupied Executive Mansion in the U.S. with a felony embezzlement conviction on his record and a string of other court appearance. They also declined to provide Schneider's resume, citing it as a personnel record. Schneider's attorneys have not responded to a request for his resume, as well.
The first sighting of this political iceberg was made more than a year ago.
After months of whispering, Schneider was dismissed from the mansion in March 2012 amid a state police investigation into allegations of "improprieties" involving the kitchen operation at the mansion. This March, a grand jury in Richmond indicted Schneider on charges he embezzled property valued at $200 or more from the state in July, September and December of 2011 and in January of 2012. The indictments contained no further details.
What knits together Schneider, Cuccinelli and McDonnell is Jonnie Williams, the CEO of Star Scientific, a tiny suburban Richmond nutritional supplement maker.
Williams gave more than $100,000 in political contributions to McDonnell and thousands of dollars more in gifts to McDonnell's family. The governor, who has been mentioned as a possible Republican presidential contender in 2016, has acknowledged receiving the gifts from Williams, including a $15,000 check to his daughter to help pay for food at her June 2011 wedding, which was catered by Schneider's company.
As for Cuccinelli, the Republican nominee to succeed McDonnell has also received gifts from Williams, including free use of the executive's Smith Mountain Lake vacation lodge in 2010 and 2012. He has dumped stock he once held in the company.
While neither Cuccinelli nor McDonnell are charged with wrongdoing in a state with feeble financial disclosure laws, the FBI is looking at the relationship between McDonnell and Williams, sources have told The Associated. The FBI's interest is related to a federal securities investigation of Star Scientific.
Schneider's attorney, however, has made it clear that his client won't quietly go to trial.
In court filings by attorney Steven D. Benjamin, Schneider told authorities about alleged but unspecified wrongdoing by the governor and his family a year ago. He also hints that he was sometimes told to take food in lieu of payment for his services, and that McDonnell family members took items from the kitchen for use or consumption elsewhere.
Schneider's current employer, a catering and event planner in the Fort Lauderdale area, said Schneider was upfront with him about the investigation in Richmond. Maurice Mizrahi described the food-for-pay scenario as fairly typical practice in the catering and restaurant business.