Food costs spiked at Virginia governor’s mansion in fiscal ‘12

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RICHMOND — An Associated Press review of state records shows grocery costs at Virginia’s Executive Mansion hit the highest levels in years in late 2011 and early 2012, the months leading up to the mansion’s chef dismissal and the start of a criminal investigation into operations of the mansion’s kitchen.

Payment vouchers for food and drink for the official home of Gov. Bob McDonnell and his family totaled $102,000 for fiscal year 2012, the 12 months that ended June 30. About half was spent from December 2011 through March 2012.

Those were the highest food outlays since the budget year that ended in June 2009, when former Gov. Tim Kaine was in office and the 12-month total was $103,469. Both are well over the annual average of $79,229.

Over time, such expenses are cyclical, occurring at about the same time in each governor’s term. But the jump in the fiscal year that ended last summer is significant because former Executive Mansion chef Todd Schneider was dismissed in March 2012. Virginia State Police had opened an investigation that continues into kitchen operations and it is already figuring into gubernatorial politics heading into this fall’s election to choose Mr. McDonnell’s successor.

Mr. Schneider faces trial in July on four felony embezzlement counts. His lawyer, Steve Benjamin, is demanding information from investigators about whether Mr. McDonnell’s family took state-purchased provisions from the mansion’s kitchen or told Mr. Schneider to take them as pay for catering services.

No charges have been filed against the governor or any member of his family.

Mr. Benjamin declined to comment Saturday on the AP’s findings. Mr. McDonnell’s chief spokesman, J. Tucker Martin, said “as these issues relate to the embezzlement trial of the former Mansion chef it would be inappropriate for us to comment at this time.”

Mr. McDonnell, addressing reporters last week from Japan during a trade mission, said “there’s a lot I’d like to say” about the claims in the motion Mr. Benjamin filed in the criminal trial but deferred to prosecutors. He returned to Virginia on Friday.

The data do not show the disposition of the food that came into the executive mansion kitchen, and there are no data on how the food and drink are used. But it affords a broad view of spending tendencies over time.

Part of the reason for the higher grocery bills is the use of mansion for public and private events as varied as college football watch parties to feting legislators to entertaining the cast of the film “Lincoln.” Event logs from the mansion show 287 events there through last month, 98 of them last year and 85 in 2011. At least 200 were sponsored and paid for by the mansion, the governor’s office or a cabinet-level office.
Governors and their families, however, are not free to bill all costs to the state.

According to reimbursement records, the McDonnell family has written checks 10 times to reimburse the Virginia treasurer for nearly $6,800 for personal items initially bought at state expense. Among the items for which the state sought reimbursement were dozens of pay-per-view movies, nearly $800 for two nights’ at Harrisonburg’s Econo Lodge hotel for daughter Rachel’s James Madison University graduation in May 2010, a $49 box for daughter Cailin McDonnell’s wedding dress in 2011 and energy drinks totaling $159 and $500 for food and alcohol for Notre Dame football watch party at the mansion in 2010.

A memo in September 2010 by Dennis Johnson of the Secretary of Administration’s office outlined what the state pays for and what governors’ families must buy on their own. Dry cleaning for the first lady and governor, basic toiletries, cleaning and laundry detergent and provisions for family meals, state functions and events are at public expense. Tailoring, dry cleaning for other family members, deodorant and body wash, pet food and provisions for non-family meals or non-state functions must be reimbursed. The memo also says that the purchase of disallowed items should only be occasional, and repaid as soon as possible.

The issue of state purchases and what happens to them has taken on new public scrutiny the past two months as a result of Mr. Schneider’s indictment and revelations about gifts to Mr. McDonnell’s family and to Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II from Jonnie Williams and his company, Star Scientific, a maker of nutritional supplements.

The Washington Post reported that Mr. Williams gave Cailin McDonnell $15,000 to help with expenses for her 2011 wedding reception at the mansion, including Mr. Schneider’s private catering services. Mr. McDonnell didn’t disclose it on his 2012 statement of economic interest because public officials are required only to report gifts to themselves, not family members.

Mr. Benjamin’s discovery motion filed Tuesday in Richmond Circuit Court on Schneider’s behalf demands very specific information about the use of state-purchased items at the mansion. It seeks information about whether Mr. McDonnell’s two sons took bottled water, cups, Gatorade, protein powder and other items from the mansion to their college residences. He also seeks information about whether “flats of eggs” and liquor were taken from the mansion by one of Mr. McDonnell’s daughters, whether cookware from the mansion was given to the three McDonnell daughters by their mother, and whether lodging and other resources were provided to the oldest daughter at the gubernatorial beach retreat at Camp Pendleton.

Mr. Schneider, who owned a Richmond catering company when he worked for the McDonnells, is also seeking documentation of instances in which he contends he wasn’t paid or, he suggests, was told to take payment by “taking it out in trade” or any other indirect method of compensation.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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