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Virginia Governor’s Ex-Chef Says He Was Questioned by FBI

Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell
Governor Robert McDonnell, a Republican from Virginia, said his administration hasn't conferred any favors on Star Scientific Inc. Photographer: Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell’s former executive mansion chef said that he told the FBI about “wrongdoing” by the governor involving gifts received from Star Scientific Inc.’s chief executive officer.

Todd Schneider, in a state court filing in Richmond, said that during interviews with the Federal Bureau of Investigation last year he described gifts to the McDonnells from Star Scientific’s CEO Jonnie Williams including $15,000 payments for their daughter’s wedding in June 2011, a vacation that year and the use of expensive cars and a private jet.

Williams’s goal was “to ingratiate himself within the mansion,” Schneider said.

Schneider’s accusations fuel a growing controversy involving Williams’s relationship with McDonnell and Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli. The ex-chef’s allegations, previously reported by the Washington Post, have sullied the image of McDonnell, who was seen as a possible running mate for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. They also could complicate the political fortunes of Cuccinelli, the Republican nominee for governor in a race in which ethics have become a key issue.

Mansion’s Kitchen

Schneider, whose April 29 filing seeks dismissal of charges he embezzled food from the mansion’s kitchen, alleged Cuccinelli had multiple conflicts of interest when he decided to prosecute him. Cuccinelli owned stock in Star Scientific and used Williams’s vacation home last summer, according to the filing.

Star Scientific, a maker of smokeless tobacco products and nutritional supplements based in Glen Allen, Virginia, disclosed in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing in March that it had received subpoenas from federal prosecutors seeking information on 2006 transactions.

“I don’t ever do anything, whether it’s with Mr. Williams or his company -- or any other person or any other company -- to give anybody any special treatment,” McDonnell said in an interview yesterday at Bloomberg’s Washington Summit.

Earlier yesterday, he told broadcaster WTOP his administration hadn’t conferred any special benefits, including grants or tax incentives, on Star Scientific or Williams, whom he called a family friend. Otherwise, he said his office has had a longstanding policy of not commenting on investigations.

Brian Gottstein, a spokesman for Cuccinelli, said “this case will be tried in court and not in the media.” Cuccinelli filed a motion to withdraw from the case on April 26.

Catering Contract

Schneider said in the filing that he turned over to investigators, who included the Virginia State Police and Cuccinelli’s office, a copy of the wedding catering contract signed by McDonnell, a copy of a check from Williams to pay the caterer and a refund check from the caterer to the governor’s wife for overpayment.

Schneider also said he told investigators that the McDonnells promoted Star Scientific products, specifically the food supplement Anatabloc, to doctors at a luncheon at the mansion, according to the filing.

McDonnell said yesterday at the Bloomberg Summit that Virginia law doesn’t require him to report gifts given to his family members, and that Star Scientific was allowed to hold the event at the mansion because of grants the company has made to state universities.

“The purpose of that was not to bestow any particular benefit on the company,” he said.

Star Scientific donated $28,600 to McDonnell’s campaign for governor in 2009 and $79,900 to Opportunity Virginia, the governor’s political action committee, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, which tracks money in the state’s politics.

Cuccinelli Ties

Cuccinelli’s ties to Williams weren’t disclosed during a March 8 meeting Schneider had with investigators at the attorney general’s office or in prior conversations Schneider’s lawyer had with a senior prosecutor, according to the filing.

During the summer, Cuccinelli sold 1,500 shares of Star Scientific stock for a $7,000 profit and vacationed at the Williams home, according to the filing. He also amended his 2012 state financial disclosure form to show his ownership of Star Scientific stock.

Star Scientific has fallen from a high in the past year of $4.96 on July 5 to $1.24 yesterday. Cuccinelli sold at $4.70 a share, according to the filing.

Talhia Tuck, a spokeswoman for Star, said in an e-mail that the company “neither sought nor received any special benefits from any public official.”

Before Schneider’s indictment in March, his lawyers argued against prosecution, claiming their client was a whistle-blower and that Cuccinelli had a conflict.

‘Financial Involvement’

“Ken Cuccinelli’s personal and financial involvement with Williams and Star Scientific and his political involvement and endorsement by the governor of Virginia conflicted with his duty to investigate” the information Schneider provided on the relationships around the executive mansion, Steven Benjamin, a lawyer for Schneider, wrote in the filing.

Rather, the relationships created an incentive to prosecute Schneider in order to compromise his credibility as a potential witness, Benjamin alleged in the filing.

The case is Virginia v. Schneider, CR13F-1960, Circuit Court for the Commonwealth of Virginia (Richmond).

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