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Prosecutor appointed in former Executive Mansion chef case

Judge grants Attorney General Cuccinelli's request to withdraw

By Larry O'Dell -- Associated Press

RICHMOND -- A judge granted Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's request to withdraw from the politically charged embezzlement case against a former Virginia Executive Mansion chef Thursday but delayed ruling on a defense request to dismiss the four-count indictment.

Richmond Circuit Judge Margaret Spencer appointed Norfolk Commonwealth's Attorney Gregory Underwood to prosecute the case against Todd Schneider. She scheduled a status hearing for May 14. A motion by Schneider's attorney, Steve Benjamin, to dismiss the charges will be considered then.

Schneider, 52, traveled from his home in Sarasota, Fla., but said nothing during the 20-minute hearing or afterward. Lawyers, subject to a gag order issued by the judge, declined to answer questions as they left the courthouse.

A case that on the surface first appeared to be a simple allegation of stealing food from the governor's kitchen has grown into a tangled web of political intrigue involving Virginia businessman Jonnie Williams' gifts to Cuccinelli and Gov. Bob McDonnell. Schneider also has claimed in court papers that he told authorities about alleged but unspecified wrongdoing by the governor and his family a year ago. Schneider hints in court papers 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.

Among the gifts from Williams, CEO of dietary supplement maker Star Scientific, was a $15,000 payment to Schneider's catering company for the wedding reception of McDonnell's daughter. The governor, who signed the catering contract, did not report the payment on state ethics forms because he considered it a gift to a family member and therefore exempt from disclosure.

As Star Scientific faces a federal securities probe, the FBI is looking at the relationship between Williams and McDonnell and his wife, Maureen.

In the motion to withdraw from the Schneider case, the attorney general's office cited a conflict of interest because a potential witness -- Mary Shea Sutherland, former chief of staff to Maureen McDonnell -- later worked for a company that raised funds for Cuccinelli's campaign for governor. Cuccinelli also said Schneider's attempt to implicate McDonnell required him to withdraw because the governor is his office's chief client.

In court, Benjamin said he agreed that Cuccinelli has conflicts, including some that he has not acknowledged involving his relationship with Williams. Cuccinelli received gifts and trips worth thousands of dollars from Williams and owned stock in Star Scientific before selling it last month.

Benjamin said Cuccinelli knew about the conflicts before he decided to prosecute Schneider, so allowing his office to withdraw now isn't good enough.

"That doesn't remedy the fundamental harm -- the decision to prosecute Mr. Schneider," Benjamin said in arguing for dismissal.

After outlining his complaints about Cuccinelli's actions, Benjamin turned his attention to McDonnell but was cut off by Senior Assistant Attorney General Patrick Dorgan's objection. Spencer agreed that Benjamin's argument was becoming too broad and instead ruled on the recusal request.

Benjamin asked her to allow the attorney general to remain on the case until the motion to dismiss is heard on May 14, saying he was concerned about throwing the trial schedule off track. The case is set for trial July 15-16.

Spencer declined the request and said all investigative files will be turned over to Underwood by Monday to give him time to prepare.

"At this point I don't know that it will disrupt the trial schedule," she said.


Follow Larry O'Dell on Twitter: http://twitter.com/LarryOatAP


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