Under scrutiny, Va. gov's mansion a dichotomy

AP News
Posted: May 22, 2013 4:40 AM
Under scrutiny, Va. gov's mansion a dichotomy

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — An embezzling case that began with a chef being accused of stealing food from Virginia's Executive Mansion and morphed into a political scandal involving two of the state's most powerful politicians has some people wondering: What goes on behind the wide double doors of the governor's house?

The governor's mansion is in some ways a dichotomy: It is perhaps the state's highest-profile office, yet also one of the only places Gov. Bob McDonnell and his family can retreat for privacy. Past and present directors describe a place where people must carefully watch how money is spent, yet few formal rules or laws exist dictating how it must be run because employees have a new boss every four years. The state's constitution limits governors to a single four-year term.

"There's no law or regulation that says the next administration has to do anything I did," said Amy Bridge, who directed the mansion for former Govs. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine. "You have to be cognizant of the fact that every family is different, everyone is going to use the mansion in a different manner."

Mansion operations have come under scrutiny since former Executive Mansion chef Todd Schneider, who also owned a catering company, was charged with four counts of felony embezzlement. State investigators have suggested Schneider ran the kitchen with minimal oversight, and his attorneys have written in court papers that he was sometimes directed to take food as payment for his services and that Gov. Bob McDonnell's family took liquor, Gatorade, cookware and other provisions from the kitchen for use elsewhere. McDonnell has declined to comment on the allegations or the pending case against the chef.

That case has led federal investigators to look into a wealthy businessman's gifts to McDonnell and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who has recused himself from the case.

There are no universal manuals or guidelines for how the nation's 50 governor's mansions must operate, according to the National Governor's Association. That leaves most state executives with wide latitude to run the homes as they see fit.

Indeed, Virginia's mansion doesn't have any set rules — no mission statement, no policy manual and no laws specifically governing its operations. What McDonnell calls "the people's house" operates with a necessary balance of oversight and flexibility, said Sarah Scarbrough, the current director.

Bridge wrote a mansion policy manual during the Warner administration from 2002 to 2006, but Scarbrough said nobody has been able to find it, so she is developing her own written guidelines to leave for her successor.

"This is where we work, but also a private residence," she said. "It's nice that the flexibility is there because each administration has its own priorities."

The top official overseeing the mansion is the governor's chief of staff, who works off-site but has broad oversight responsibility. The middle manager is the mansion director, Scarbrough, who handles day-to-day operations. Also working out of offices in the basement or the carriage house out back are an assistant director, butler, chef, housekeeper and two assistants to the first lady.

Some governors spend more time at the mansion than others. For example, the Warners kept their home in northern Virginia and stayed there periodically during his term, while Kaine rarely if ever stayed at his private house in Richmond. Also, those two governors had children living at home, while McDonnell's children are college-age or older and are not at the mansion full time.

Despite the flexibility, other things don't change. For example, at least one member of the governor's security detail is always on duty, and the Department of General Services handles all the maintenance, repairs and yard work. And for more than two decades, the Division of Selected Agency Support Services has overseen accounting and purchasing procedures that allow the state to pick up the tab for necessities like cleaning supplies and groceries but require the family to pay for extras like pet products and clothing alterations.

A document lists the "allowable" expenses and examples of what the governor has to pay for out of pocket. Scarbrough said that if a purchase falls in a gray area, she asks the governor to pay. According to reimbursement records, the McDonnell family has reimbursed the Virginia treasurer for such items as energy drinks and $500 for food and alcohol for a Notre Dame football watch party at the mansion in 2010, among other items.

Bridge said she, too, was scrupulous about fiscal responsibility.

"Having purchasing guidelines is always a very good idea," she said. "I was very uptight about our budget. Every month I'd get a report on purchases from Support Services and I would go over it with a fine-tooth comb."

The mansion's longtime butler has a mansion credit card, and Scarbrough and the chef are authorized users.

The basement is the business hub of the operation. The main floor is a semi-public space, open for scheduled tours and available for special events from Easter egg hunts to awards ceremonies, when not in use by the governor for meetings or receptions. Employees and the governor's family have access to those spaces, including the basement kitchen.

Scarbrough said the chef has a substantial amount of freedom in operating the kitchen, which spent more than $102,000 on food and dietary supplies in the 2012 fiscal year, according to figures obtained by The Associated Press. The chef is responsible for the first family's private meals, as well as catering receptions and other events held at the mansion.

Scarbrough said nobody supervised Schneider's every move, but the same can be said for all the mansion employees.

"We all have bosses and supervisors, but also everyone is very busy and trusts one another," she said. "So there is a good level of autonomy here."

She declined to address Schneider's claim that he was told to take food in lieu of payment, saying she could not comment on any aspect of the criminal case.

Upstairs is the family living quarters, which includes a smaller kitchen for snacks or quick meals not prepared by the chef. It's the only private space in the house.

"You're trying to help them lead as normal life as possible in a fish bowl," Bridge said. "It's a family dealing with homework and birthday parties and high school dances and everything else a family goes through."