When he was the executive chef of Virginia’s governor’s mansion, Todd Schneider kept track of what the seven members of the state’s first family liked and didn’t like to eat. Schneider knew that Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) was a brussels sprouts man. He knew that the first lady, Maureen McDonnell, was partial to crab-seasoned popcorn. He knew that everyone liked bananas.
“I’m in heaven here,” Schneider told The Richmond Times-Dispatch in a July 2010 interview, while standing in front of a rosemary bush in the gubernatorial garden.
Three years later, Todd Schneider is far from heaven. Accused of taking property from the governor’s mansion kitchen, Schneider is facing several charges of embezzlement in Virginia court. At the same time, he has become a key player in the scandal swirling around the McDonnells and Virginia’s Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.Revelations about the relationship between the McDonnell family, Cuccinelli, and a prominent political donor and businessman, Jonnie Williams Sr., have been trickling out for weeks. Williams, the CEO of a struggling dietary supplement company called Star Scientific, has given McDonnell tens of thousands of dollars in campaign funds over the years, as well as reportedly tens of thousands of dollars in undisclosed money and other gifts. The undisclosed funds are now at the center of federal and state investigations, according to The Washington Post.
According to a court motion filed at the end of April by his attorney, Schneider began providing state and federal authorities with information about Williams’ relationship to the McDonnells over a year ago. On Feb. 10, 2012, Schneider met with agents from the Virginia State Police and the FBI. A month later, on March 8, 2012, Schneider and his attorney again met with the agents, along with Patrick Dorgan, a senior assistant state attorney general.
“[Schneider] described Williams’ efforts to ingratiate himself within the Mansion with gifts Williams had provided the McDonnells, including payments for their daughter’s wedding in the summer of June, 2011, a summer vacation in 2011, and the use of expensive cars and a private jet,” Schneider’s attorney, Steven Benjamin, wrote in the April motion, describing last March’s meeting. “Todd Schneider also discussed the McDonnells’ promotion of Star Scientific products, including the introduction of Anatabloc (a food supplement) to [Medical College of Virginia] doctors at a lunch Todd Schneider cooked at the Mansion on August 30, 2012.”
Schneider was dismissed from his job at the governor’s mansion last March, the same month he met with Dorgan and the FBI. Media reports at the time wrote that Schneider left amid a state police investigation into alleged “improprieties involving the kitchen operations at the governor’s mansion,” as a Virginia State Police spokesperson put it to The Washington Post. A year later, in March 2013, Schneider was indicted.
All of this must have been inconceivable when Schneider got his job at the executive mansion in 2010. He had spent decades in the food world, mostly in catering, and claimed ties to food stars like Martha Stewart and Paula Deen and clients like former president Bill Clinton, former vice president Dick Cheney and famed movie director Steven Spielberg. In 2011, he appeared alongside Maureen McDonnell in an appearance on the Lifetime show “The Balancing Act.” He fed the show’s host, Beth Troutman, a cookie, and touted the importance of food in the governor’s mansion.
“We’ve made the kitchen the heart of the house,” Schneider said during the appearance. “So it’s great that the governor comes down, the first lady, and we’re like a big family here.”
Despite his self-professed culinary pedigree, before his governor’s mansion days, Schneider had his share of financial and legal troubles. The Associated Press found that state and federal tax liens totaling nearly $400,000 were filed against Schneider between 2006 and 2013. And in May 2000, well before Schneider’s days as the McDonnells’ chef, a felony embezzlement charge was filed against him. The specifics remain hazy, but the charge was apparently reduced to a misdemeanor in exchange for a guilty plea. (A second felony charge brought against Schneider and tracked down by the Associated Press was dropped.) The McDonnell administration has said that Schneider did not get a criminal background check when he was hired.
There are other questions. Schneider told the Times-Dispatch in 2010 that he studied finance at New York University, and later worked as a stockbroker. A spokesperson for NYU told the Associated Press that the school had no record of a Todd Schneider with his birth date.
In court filings, Benjamin, Schneider’s lawyer, has argued that the very food and supplies his client is now accused of embezzling from the state was given to Schneider as work-around payment for catering personal and political events McDonnell held at the mansion. Furthermore, Benjamin believes Schneider should be treated as a whistleblower. He has also argued that Cuccinelli’s conflict of interest in the case — Schneider did not know Cuccinelli held Star Scientific stock when he began speaking with investigators — should get the case dismissed. (Cuccinelli recused himself from the case in late April, citing the fact that a former governor’s mansion employee now works for his gubernatorial campaign.)
Earlier this week, a court hearing was held on Benjamin’s motion to dismiss the case. Afterward, Tony Troy, a private attorney representing McDonnell, disputed the idea that Schneider had been forced to cook for non-state or McDonnell family events. According to The Washington Post, Troy said that the executive chef was supposed to be a “at-will, 24-7 employee.”
“The job goes beyond feeding the first family,” Troy said. “You all have seen the job description. .â.â. He had to cater meals not just for the first family but for any sundry events.”