“Be nice to the little people.” This 11th Commandment should be in needlepoint on a pillow, next to the one that says “Don’t confuse brains with a bull market.”
Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell ignored this injunction, as did his attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, who is now running for governor against former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe. Cuccinelli was favored to succeed the term-limited McDonnell, a darling of the Christian right who was once considered presidential timber. Now McDonnell has to bat down rumors that he’s resigning while repaying more than $140,000 in gifts and loans from a wealthy businessman.
The scandal -- which, unlike some others, is G-rated -- begins in March 2010 and plays like a game of Clue in which the prime suspect is the chef in the kitchen with a side of beef. Todd Schneider was a small-town celebrity cook, the subject of a feature on the Lifetime network, with his own restaurant and catering company. McDonnell hired him in 2010 to cook two meals a day at the governor’s mansion and to provide the flowers, chairs, linens, rare tuna and wine from his catering operation for official events. When the bills came, the mansion director balked at paying them: It was a conflict of interest for the chef to be getting private catering jobs. The remedy was for Schneider to keep cooking and be paid in foodstuffs from the mansion’s pantry.
So far, so good -- until February 2012, when two state policemen showed up, perhaps on a tip from someone who saw a truck pulling up to the mansion’s back door, and Schneider described the food-for-pay arrangement. Next thing he knew, the police were at his catering company looking for possibly purloined peas.
At that point, Schneider called one of Richmond’s best criminal lawyers, Steve Benjamin, who, in turn, got in touch with the attorney general’s office to say: If you’re going to go after my client for a legitimate arrangement, let me tell you about some illegitimate ones. Schneider then spilled the beans about who paid the bills for McDonnell’s daughter’s 2011 wedding, the first shoe to drop in the scandal: It was Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the wealthy founder of Star Scientific Inc.
McDonnell blamed his daughter -- until Schneider produced the contract signed by McDonnell, plus the check that had gone back to the governor’s wife for Jonnie’s overpayment.
That was just the tip of the baked Alaska. Williams was the McDonnells’ -- and Cuccinelli’s -- human ATM.
The entrepreneur underwrote a shopping spree to New York for Virginia’s first lady and bought, at her bidding, a Rolex for her to give to her husband. That’s in addition to cold, hard cash: Williams gave Mrs. McDonnell $50,000 in May 2011 and put $70,000 into a real-estate company owned by the governor and his sister. Mindful of sibling rivalry, he also gave $10,000 for another McDonnell daughter’s wedding in May.
Williams also showered Cuccinelli with goodies -- trips, stays at his vacation homes and catered dinners estimated at $18,000. Cuccinelli also made money on Star Scientific stock, which he initially neglected to note on his financial-disclosure forms.
For his trouble, Williams got the personal attention of the McDonnells for his cause. They hosted a lunch to introduce Williams’s sketchy dietary supplement, Anatabloc -- an anti-inflammatory pill made from tobacco byproducts. The first lady went on to appear at several events endorsing the product, for which Williams was seeking state regulatory approval. (A state bureaucrat -- another little person -- refused to roll over for Anatabloc, and it wasn’t approved.)
In February 2013, the attorney general indicted Schneider on charges of embezzling state property. Apparently, Schneider was welcome to take the occasional slab of meat, but the detergent and strawberries were off-limits. There’s a motion to dismiss pending on the grounds that Cuccinelli -- who was later recused from the case - was hopelessly conflicted when he brought the case. Now Williams has joined the chef in spilling to federal investigators.
McDonnell’s defense is that he didn’t agree to everything that was trucked out of the mansion, only some of it, and he is paying everything back. Cuccinelli has amended his disclosure forms to reveal his financial ties to Williams, and recused himself from the case, although that doesn’t settle the question of whether he brought charges to retaliate against the chef for his revelations.
Cuccinelli now claims the state’s ethics laws aren’t stringent enough, presumably because they didn’t catch someone like him. He’s just called on McDonnell to convene a special session of the state’s General Assembly to consider new rules.
As for repaying the $18,000 in goodies from Williams, Cuccinelli says that particular “bell can’t be unrung.” That one deserves a needlepoint pillow of its own.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.)
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