RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — When he was hired in 2010 as chef at Virginia's historic Executive Mansion, Todd Schneider came with celebrity cachet, claiming connections to cooking world stars such as Martha Stewart and Paula Deen. And when a cable channel toured the governor's mansion, Schneider was cast as co-star to first lady Maureen McDonnell, showing off the gardens he tended and the kitchen he ran.
Schneider served a platter of oatmeal, raisin and granola cookies to the Lifetime host as the beaming first lady looked on. An image flashed on the screen of Gov. Bob McDonnell, wearing a blue apron and working at a kitchen counter. "We're like a big family here," Schneider said.
The once-celebrated chef no longer works at the mansion. He is accused of pilfering food from the governor's official residence and faces trial this summer on charges of felony embezzlement.
Now, 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 political drama involving questionable giving by the CEO of a struggling company to the state's most powerful politicians — McDonnell and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.
Schneider's attorneys have fired back, suggesting that the scandal's full scope has yet to be revealed.
A judge has issued a gag order as Schneider's case moves through pre-trial hearings.
McDonnell and his spokesmen have declined to discuss the case or explain how the politically connected Schneider, with state and federal tax liens totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars and a string of court appearances on his record, ended up in the mansion's kitchen. They also declined to provide Schneider's resume, calling it a personnel record. Schneider's attorneys have not responded to a request for the resume.
First signs of the scandal surfaced in March 2012.
After months of whispering, Schneider was dismissed from the mansion amid a state police investigation into allegations of improprieties involving the kitchen operation. This March, a grand jury indicted Schneider on charges that he embezzled property valued at $200 or more from the state in 2011 and in January 2012. The indictments contained no further details.
The person who links Schneider, Cuccinelli and McDonnell is Jonnie Williams, the CEO of Star Scientific, a tiny manufacturer of nutritional supplements in suburban Richmond.
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, including a $15,000 check to his daughter to help pay for food at her June 2011 wedding. The check went Schneider's company, Seasonings Fine Catering.
As for Cuccinelli, the Republican nominee to succeed McDonnell also has received gifts from Williams, including free use of his Smith Mountain Lake vacation lodge in 2010 and 2012. Cuccinelli has dumped stock he once held in Williams' company.
Neither Cuccinelli nor McDonnell is charged with wrongdoing, but the FBI is looking at the relationship between McDonnell and Williams, sources have told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because their roles precluded them from talking publicly. The FBI's interest is related to a federal securities investigation of Star Scientific.
Schneider's attorney, meanwhile, has made it clear his client won't quietly go to trial.
In court filings, attorney Steven D. Benjamin said Schneider told authorities about alleged but unspecified wrongdoing by the governor and his family a year ago. He also hinted Schneider was sometimes told to take food in lieu of payment and that McDonnell family members took items from the kitchen.
Schneider's current employer, a catering and event planner in the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., area, said Schneider was upfront about the investigation in Richmond. Maurice Mizrahi described the food-for-pay scenario as fairly typical in the catering and restaurant business.
Mizrahi recalled being in Schneider's Richmond restaurant, Great Seasons, in 2011 as a worker loaded beef and other things for the mansion. "I know there was a whole bunch of back-and-forth," Mizrahi said.
Mizrahi hired Schneider as sales and events manager and said he's one of the best he's seen in the business.
He's convinced 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.
Benjamin is seeking dismissal of the charges because he said Cuccinelli has conflicts he has not acknowledged, including ties to Williams.
A judge agreed to let Cuccinelli's office recuse itself from the case. But Benjamin said Cuccinelli knew about the conflicts before he decided to prosecute Schneider. "This doesn't remedy the fundamental harm — the decision to prosecute Mr. Schneider," Benjamin said in court last week.
Schneider had worked for decades in the catering and restaurant business in Virginia and his native Connecticut, but Schneider has been no stranger to courtrooms, according to records obtained by the AP. Many of those appearances signaled financial strains.
State and federal tax liens totaling nearly $400,000 were filed against Schneider in Richmond and Chesterfield courts from 2006 through this year. Court records in Chesterfield Circuit Court state he has not settled a nearly $54,000 lien, some of that assessed while he worked in the mansion.
Food purveyors, a home heating company, an attorney and others also went to small claims or circuit courts to press him 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 incomplete court records indicate it was reduced to a misdemeanor in return for a guilty plea. He received a six-month suspended sentence. Specifics were not available at the courthouse, nor was another felony charge that was dropped.
Citing the gag order, Schneider's attorneys declined to comment.
The McDonnell administration has acknowledged that Schneider did not undergo a state police criminal background check before he was hired.
After his hiring, he claimed in news accounts an internship under Stewart and a friendship with celebrity chef Deen. Stewart spokeswoman Kate Bittman said she could not "verify one way or the other whether Mr. Schneider was an intern of Martha's."
And though Deen "liked" his restaurant's Facebook page, spokesman Jeff Rose said, "She met him once, and they had no friendship."
In interviews with the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the Washington Post, Schneider said he had catered events for former President Bill Clinton, former Vice President Dick Cheney, movie director Steven Spielberg, and corporate clients such as Capital One and NBC. Records compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project, which monitors money in politics, showed Schneider was a favorite among state politicians, earning tens of thousands of dollars through the years.
He told the Richmond paper that he studied finance at New York University and worked as a stockbroker. But NYU spokesman James Devitt wrote in an email that the school has no record of attendance by a Todd Schneider with his birth date.
Schneider is due back in court Tuesday.
Associated Press news researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap.