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Ken Cuccinelli allowed to recuse himself from executive mansion chef case

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Local,Virginia,Steve Contorno

A Richmond judge decided Thursday to allow Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli to recuse his office from an embezzlement case involving the governor's former chef, Todd Schneider, citing Cuccinelli's conflict of interest as the chief concern.

Cuccinelli last month asked the court to recuse him and appoint a new prosecutor to go after Schneider, noting that a key witness, first lady Maureen McDonnell's former chief of staff, Mary Shea Sutherland, helped Cuccinelli raise money for his gubernatorial campaign.

Richmond Circuit Court Judge Margaret Spencer appointed Norfolk Commonwealth's Attorney Gregory Underwood to the case. Cuccinelli had asked for Prince William County prosecutor Paul Ebert to take over, but the defendant objected.

Schneider's attorneys would not comment on the judge's ruling Thursday, citing a gag order. But in court motions they said given Cuccinelli's conflict he should have recused himself before charging the former chef, and they are asking the case to be dismissed.

Cuccinelli spokeswoman Caroline Gibson said in a statement that the attorney general is "pleased with the judge's decision to allow recusal in this matter, and we are confident that justice will be carried out in this case."

The case against Schneider is rife with controversy and potential political fallout. It is also entangled with an ongoing FBI investigation into Richmond-area supplement maker Star Scientifc whose CEO Jonnie Williams has close ties to Cuccinelli and Gov. Bob McDonnell.

Schneider has alleged in court filings that the McDonnells and their children used the executive mansion like a personal refrigerator, taking Gatorade, food and alcohol outside the taxpayer-funded residence.

Schneider also said he came to Cuccinelli's office as a whistle-blower with evidence of wrongdoing between McDonnell and Williams before being charged with four counts of stealing property from the 200-year-old mansion.

In addition to free vacations and trips given to McDonnell, Williams paid a $15,000 catering bill at the wedding of McDonnell's daughter that was not reported on the governor's annual financial filings because state disclosure laws don't apply to family members. Schneider's private company catered that wedding.

McDonnell's relationship with Williams is now under investigation by the FBI. Around the time of the wedding, the McDonnells helped promote a supplement critical to the financial future of Star Scientific. Williams gave more than $100,000 to McDonnell's campaign, though Star Scientific has received no economic assistance from the state during the McDonnell administration.

Williams has also lavished gifts on Cuccinelli, including several between 2009 and 2012 that the Republican did not report until last week. Cuccinelli also owned stock in Star Scientific and increased his holdings after the company sued the state over $700,000 in unpaid taxes.

Cuccinelli is running for governor this year against Democrat Terry McAuliffe. A spokesman for McAuliffe accused the Republican of "hiding from the press and refusing to answer basic questions about his growing ethics scandal."

scontorno@washingtonexaminer.com

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