RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The FBI has begun examining the relationship between Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen and the chief executive of a nutritional supplements manufacturer that is the subject of a federal investigation, two people with knowledge of the review said Monday.
Federal authorities began questioning people close to the McDonnells as an outgrowth of a securities probe of Virginia-based Star Scientific Inc., said the two people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because their roles in the case preclude them from speaking publicly.
They said FBI agents have asked questions about gifts the McDonnells have received from company CEO Jonnie Williams and whether the Republican governor or his administration aided the company in return.
The review was first reported Monday by The Washington Post.
Earlier in the day, Todd Schneider, the ex-chef for the governor’s mansion who faces four felony counts alleging he stole from the mansion, alleged in court papers that he gave FBI and state police investigators evidence a year ago of wrongdoing and abuse by McDonnell and his family. This included documents showing Williams paid $15,000 to help cover the costs of catering done by Schneider’s private company for a June 2011 mansion wedding reception for McDonnell’s daughter Cailin, court papers show.
McDonnell did not disclose the gift on his January 2012 statement of economic interests, noting that state law requires only that gifts to elected officials themselves, not family members, be reported.
An FBI spokeswoman refused to comment Monday evening, as did the office of U.S. Attorney Neil McBride.
There was no reply late Monday night to email and telephone messages left for McDonnell’s chief spokesman, J. Tucker Martin, about the FBI review. Earlier Monday, Martin said Schneider’s allegations were part of “an inquiry for the prosecution as it involves a pending matter in the upcoming embezzlement trial of the former Mansion chef, and we will not comment on it.”
Jerry W. Kilgore, an attorney for Williams, said his client would have no comment.
The two people close to the review said questions about the McDonnells arose from the securities investigation into Star Scientific, which the company disclosed last month. They said federal investigators want to know the extent of gifts to McDonnell’s family and what the governor or the administration may have done to promote a Star Scientific food supplement marketed as Anatabloc.
McDonnell’s administration said the governor’s efforts to assist Star Scientific are no different than what the governor has done to help hundreds of Virginia-based businesses grow and prosper.
According to the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonprofit tracker of money in Virginia politics, Williams has given McDonnell’s political action committee nearly $80,000 and gave his 2009 campaign for governor $28,584. It also shows McDonnell receiving personal gifts totaling $7,382 from the company in 2012.
Monday’s reports of FBI interest in the case along with the motions filed in Schneider’s case are the first to directly allege misconduct by Virginia’s governor and his family in the continuing criminal investigation arising from kitchen operations at the 200-year-old Virginia Executive Mansion, the official home of the state’s governors and the longest-serving gubernatorial residence of any state.
The ex-chef’s case has tarnished the rising GOP star that McDonnell had been a year ago. McDonnell, a former prosecutor, was considered a potential running mate for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney last year.
Schneider had headed the kitchen operations from 2010, when McDonnell moved in, until last year, when he was dismissed after a state police inquiry began into alleged improprieties in the mansion’s kitchen.
Schneider is facing four counts of taking state property worth $200 or more in the last half of 2011 and early 2012. Monday’s filings came as part of a motion seeking to dismiss charges against Schneider at a hearing in the case scheduled for Thursday.
The motion alleges Schneider told investigators that the mansion staff and other state employees had witnessed him being instructed to take state-purchased food as payment for personal services, and that they saw others “openly taking cases of food and other supplies from the Governor’s Mansion.”
It also accuses Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican candidate for governor this year, of prosecuting Schneider in an attempt to protect his political interests in his gubernatorial bid — “a campaign for which he needs substantial political donations and the support of the current Governor of Virginia.”
He alleges that Cuccinelli ignored evidence that Schneider provided about McDonnell’s ties to Williams because the attorney general had also received thousands of dollars in gifts from the same business executive.
“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 information provided by Todd Schneider to determine whether Williams used the Mansion and his relationship with the governor and first lady to promote a scheme to defraud,” the motion contends.
Cuccinelli filed a motion last week to recuse his office from prosecuting Schneider, citing conflicts of interest. But the motion says Cuccinelli should have recused his office from the case a year ago.
Cuccinelli’s campaign said in a release: “Todd Schneider is facing multiple indictments for stealing. Ultimately he will face a jury of his peers.”
Political and official aides to Cuccinelli dismissed the motion by Schneider’s attorney, Steven D. Benjamin of Richmond, as a further effort to politicize and sensationalize a criminal trial.
Cucinelli’s top campaign adviser, Christopher J. LaCivita, called it “the defense counsel’s Gloria Allred moment,” referring to the famous celebrity lawyer. Brian Gottstein, a spokesman for the Virginia attorney general’s office, said the case “will be tried in court and not in the media.”
The Virginia State Police, in a news statement, noted its policy of neither confirming nor denying investigations of elected officials.
In support of the motion to dismiss, Benjamin provides a chronological list of lapses that he says not only compromised Cuccinelli in prosecuting the case but also concealed how deeply obligated the attorney general had become to Williams over four years until belatedly amending his economic interest forms and making them public late Friday.
Just before Schneider’s indictment last March, the motion said, defense lawyers objected to Cuccinelli’s office ignoring Schneider’s information “concerning the use of the Mansion by Williams, the promotion of Williams’ food supplement by the governor and first lady” as a result of his conflict of interest.
Benjamin noted that Cuccinelli sold 1,500 shares of Star Scientific stock at near-record prices for the stock last summer at a profit of $7,000. He also noted Cuccinelli’s free use of Williams’ Smith Mountain Lake vacation lodge for a summer 2012 vacation worth $3,000 and another stay there for Thanksgiving 2010 complete with a catered holiday dinner worth $1,500, none of which Cuccinelli disclosed until last week.
Cuccinelli asked Richmond Circuit Court last week to turn the prosecution over to Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul Ebert. Earlier this month, Cuccinelli also recused his office from defending the Virginia Department of Taxation in a lawsuit Star Scientific filed challenging $700,000 in disputed state taxes.