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Va. governor's chef amid a political potboiler

Source : AP
Last Updated: Sat, May 11, 2013 16:30 hrs

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.

Not anymore.

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.

Mizrahi recalled being in Schneider's restaurant, Great Seasons, in 2011 and seeing one of his workers loading beef and other provisions destined for the mansion. "I know there was a whole bunch of back-and-forth," he said.

Schneider is Mizrahi's sales and events manager, and he says he's one of the best he's seen in the business.

"I'm hoping this thing goes well in Virginia because I'm really happy to have him," Mizrahi said.

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

A judge agreed to let Cuccinelli's office recuse itself from the case, but Benjamin was not appeased. "This doesn't remedy the fundamental harm — the decision to prosecute Mr. Schneider," he said at a court hearing last week.

Schneider's appearance in court is a stark contrast from his celebrated arrival at the mansion in 2010, shortly after McDonnell took office and move his family into the mansion, which is a short walk from the Capitol and is marking its 200th birthday this year. Visitors have included Winston Churchill and Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip. He came to the mansion after decades in the catering and restaurant business, in Virginia and his native Connecticut.

Schneider, however, has been no stranger to courtrooms throughout his nomadic career, according to records obtained by the AP. Many of those appearances signal financial strains.

State and federal tax liens totaling more than $300,000 were filed in Chesterfield Circuit Court, while food purveyors, a home heating company, an attorney and others also went to small claims or circuit courts to press for payments totaling thousands of dollars. The majority of the claims were settled but the disposition of all the cases is not clear, based on available public records.

A felony embezzlement charge in May 2000 was brought in Richmond General District Court against Schneider and was sentenced to a six-month suspended sentence. The documents do not indicate if he entered a plea or was convicted at trial. Specifics of the case were not available at the courthouse.

About 10 addresses listed under a Todd Schneider were found in Connecticut, primarily in the New Haven and Stamford areas, during the 1980s and 1990s, while about a half dozen listings under that name were found in the Richmond area since 1999. Assessment records show that he obtained a $215,650 mortgage to purchase a $227,000 home in a leafy suburb of Richmond in 2006.

The McDonnell administration has acknowledged that Schneider had not undergone a background check, which would have ruled him out for the job.

Schneider, too, had boasted of some royalty in his career as a restaurateur, event planner and caterer. His claimed to have worked for Martha Stewart, although a spokeswoman said she could not "verify one way or the other whether Mr. Schneider was an intern of Martha's." His now-closed suburban Richmond restaurant, Great Seasons, garnered a Facebook "like" from celebrity chef Paula Deen. He also claimed to have been friends with her.

"She met him once and they had no friendship," a spokesman for Deen said.

In interviews with the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the Washington Post dating to his appointment, Schneider said he had catered events for former President Bill Clinton, former Vice President Dick Cheney, movie director Steven Spielberg, big corporate clients such as Capital One and NBC. Records compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project, which monitors money in politics, show that Schneider was a favorite among state politicians off all stripes, earning him 10s of thousands of dollars through the years.

He told the Richmond paper in a July 2010 profile that he studied finance at New York University and worked as a stockbroker after graduation. He eventually returned to his first love, food.

"I'm in heaven here," he said of his first few weeks on the job at the mansion.

Mizrahi said Schneider moved to Florida six months ago after his father died and he threw himself into the job. "I think he had had enough after what happened up there," he said.

He's convinced, too, that 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.

Schneider is due back in court Tuesday.

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Associated Press news researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.

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Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap.



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