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Ex-chef to Va. governor central in political drama

Saturday - 5/11/2013, 5:00pm  ET

STEVE SZKOTAK
Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- When he was hired in 2010 as chef at Virginia's historic Executive Mansion, Todd Schneider came with celebrity cachet, claiming connections to cooking world stars such as Martha Stewart and Paula Deen. And when a cable channel toured the governor's mansion, Schneider was cast as co-star to first lady Maureen McDonnell, showing off the gardens he tended and the kitchen he ran.

Schneider served a platter of oatmeal, raisin and granola cookies to the Lifetime host as the beaming first lady looked on. An image flashed on the screen of Gov. Bob McDonnell, wearing a blue apron and working at a kitchen counter. "We're like a big family here," Schneider said.

Not anymore.

The once-celebrated chef no longer works at the mansion. He is accused of pilfering food from the governor's official residence and faces trial this summer on charges of felony embezzlement.

Now, 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 political drama involving questionable giving by the CEO of a struggling company to the state's most powerful politicians -- McDonnell and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

Schneider's attorneys have fired back, suggesting that the scandal's full scope has yet to be revealed.

A judge has issued a gag order as Schneider's case moves through pre-trial hearings.

McDonnell and his spokesmen have declined to discuss the case or explain how the politically connected Schneider, with state and federal tax liens totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars and a string of court appearances on his record, ended up in the mansion's kitchen. They also declined to provide Schneider's resume, calling it a personnel record. Schneider's attorneys have not responded to a request for the resume.

First signs of the scandal surfaced in March 2012.

After months of whispering, Schneider was dismissed from the mansion amid a state police investigation into allegations of improprieties involving the kitchen operation. This March, a grand jury indicted Schneider on charges that he embezzled property valued at $200 or more from the state in 2011 and in January 2012. The indictments contained no further details.

The person who links Schneider, Cuccinelli and McDonnell is Jonnie Williams, the CEO of Star Scientific, a tiny manufacturer of nutritional supplements in suburban Richmond.

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, including a $15,000 check to his daughter to help pay for food at her June 2011 wedding. The check went Schneider's company, Seasonings Fine Catering.

As for Cuccinelli, the Republican nominee to succeed McDonnell also has received gifts from Williams, including free use of his Smith Mountain Lake vacation lodge in 2010 and 2012. Cuccinelli has dumped stock he once held in Williams' company.

Neither Cuccinelli nor McDonnell is charged with wrongdoing, but the FBI is looking at the relationship between McDonnell and Williams, sources have told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because their roles precluded them from talking publicly. The FBI's interest is related to a federal securities investigation of Star Scientific.

Schneider's attorney, meanwhile, has made it clear his client won't quietly go to trial.

In court filings, attorney Steven D. Benjamin said Schneider told authorities about alleged but unspecified wrongdoing by the governor and his family a year ago. He also hinted Schneider was sometimes told to take food in lieu of payment and that McDonnell family members took items from the kitchen.

Schneider's current employer, a catering and event planner in the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., area, said Schneider was upfront about the investigation in Richmond. Maurice Mizrahi described the food-for-pay scenario as fairly typical in the catering and restaurant business.

Mizrahi recalled being in Schneider's Richmond restaurant, Great Seasons, in 2011 as a worker loaded beef and other things for the mansion. "I know there was a whole bunch of back-and-forth," Mizrahi said.

Mizrahi hired Schneider as sales and events manager and said he's one of the best he's seen in the business.

He's convinced Schneider is innocent. "For me to believe that he would take anything that wasn't an even trade or barter, zero possibility in my book," Mizrahi said.

Benjamin is seeking dismissal of the charges because he said Cuccinelli has conflicts he has not acknowledged, including ties to Williams.

A judge agreed to let Cuccinelli's office recuse itself from the case. But Benjamin said Cuccinelli knew about the conflicts before he decided to prosecute Schneider. "This doesn't remedy the fundamental harm -- the decision to prosecute Mr. Schneider," Benjamin said in court last week.

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