Republican gubernatorial candidate and Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli appears to be the big winner now that former Todd Schneider, former executive chef to Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, copped pleas to lesser charges, avoiding a felony trial for embezzlement next month.
"The summer has been a debacle for Cuccinelli," says political analyst Bob Holsworth. "This gives him a chance to turn his campaign around. What it means for the McDonnells is less clear," he says.
Robert and wife Maureen McDonnell face federal and state probes for accepting thousands of dollars in gifts and loans from Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the head of Henrico County-based supplement maker Star Scientific.
The probes had begun after Schneider, who had worked for the McDonnells as chef from 2010 until his firing in early 2012, told prosecutors of the ties between the McDonnells and Williams. Schneider had been accused of taking food and other items from the Executive Mansion. He claims the McDonnells told him to take them as payment for catering he had done for personal and political events held by the McDonnells
At a hearing this afternoon, Schneider pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor counts of embezzlement. The deal included six-month suspended sentences on each count and requires Schneider to play $2,300 in restitution to the state.
It is not unknown if the deal involves Schneider providing testimony against the McDonnells if they are indicted.
Ironically, Schneider first approached Cuccinelli with his accusations of the gifts Williams had given the McDonnells in March 2012. The attorney general waited until the following November to take action on Schneider's accusations.
Accepting gifts is legal in Virginia but any gift of more than $50 must be disclosed. The requirement does not cover family members of public officials. McDonnell failed to disclose thousands of dollars in gifts and loans from Williams – which he has since returned or repaid.
Cuccinelli likewise failed to promptly disclose $18,000 in gifts from Williams and stock he held in Star Scientific. He has sold the stock and, after much pressure to repay the value of gifts, donated $18,000 to a Richmond charity. A local prosecutor has declared that Cuccinelli violated no laws in the matter.
The sudden end of Schneider's case spares Cuccinelli from the adverse attention that Schneider's trial, which had been scheduled for Oct. 15 to 18 – just three weeks before the election -- would have generated, Holsworth says.
Papers filed by Stephen Benjamin, Schneider's lawyer, claim that the McDonnell family regularly took state-owned goods including eggs and energy drinks from the Executive Mansion and that Maureen McDonnell treated her staff so badly that management coaches from Virginia Commonwealth University were brought in to help change her behavior. None of that information is now likely to come out in open court. It could have embarrassed Cuccinelli, a fellow Republican.
The McDonnells are still scheduled to meet with federal prosecutors within a few days. Prosecutors are trying to decide whether to indict the McDonnells for performing some quid pro quo for Williams after accepting his gifts and loans.
"It's really hard to tell what's going on with the McDonnells," Holsworth says.
Cuccinelli, moreover, won't completely escape criticism. Because of his association with Williams, the state has paid thousands of dollars to outside lawyers to handle law cases his office would have handled.