The Ferrari, The Chef and The Cooch
Isana laughed. “And you, lady? Are you a woman of conscience or of ambition?”
The lady smiled. “That’s a question rarely asked here at court.”
“And why is that?”
“Because a woman of conscience would tell you that she is a person of conscience. A woman of ambition would tell you that she is a person of conscience—only much more convincingly.”
— Jim Butcher, Academ’s Fury
“Ambition is all very well, my lad, but you must cloak it.”
— Jonathan Stroud, The Amulet of Samarkand
Here’s a true story. The first time I saw Ken Cuccinelli he was on the floor of the Virginia State Senate giving one hell of a stem-winder in favor of payday lenders.
Not against them, mind you. Not against their usurious fees that regularly bankrupted their clients and sometimes approached a ludicrous 300%. No! He spoke in favor of the blood merchants. He walked into the lion’s den and grasped them by their manes and said “I LOVE you guys!” using the kind of speech that has since become a subset of speciousness on the right. We must not strangle these poor struggling businesses! We must allow these businessmen to take great risks and such risks as they take, they should be favorably remunerated in kind! For they are the engines of our economy and so forth and so on (I’m paraphrasing, of course). He went on for quite some time. When he was finished, the vote was held. Every Senator in that chamber voted to regulate the payday lender save one man who abstained, resilient in the face of adversity, holding fast to principle despite titanic political odds: Ken Cuccinelli.*
Later, of course, it was revealed that Ken “The Cooch” Cuccinelli received over $27,000 in donations from the payday lenders he had so adamantly defended—which might serve better to explain his energetic defense of the indefensible. Or maybe it was principle, but of the most obscure kind.**
Thus goes the way of principle and ambition in Virginia. The public face is always principled, cloaking ambition’s various machinations. Ken has been at this game for a while; but there’s something a little off about The Cooch, about how he’s playing his hand.
It’s not the current scandal he’s immersed in, per se. That is a problem, it goes without saying, but maybe a deeper problem is his inability to correctly mask that ambitious drive that underpins all his ‘principled’ positions. As any good scholar of Virginia politics would explain, the appearance of propriety is much more important than being proper, itself. Of course, the Governor is apt to take off in a $190,000 Ferrari on a road trip thanks to a special donor’s kindness, that’s standard scandal material. Of course, said donor might have some major legal problems (to the tune of $700,000 in outstanding state taxes) that need to go away. Of course, he has a business that needs kick started. All of that is standard. But do you take thousands in donations from a man who owns such a Ferrari, not disclose it, and all the while publicly prosecuting the Governor’s chef—who, as it happens, knows all about this man, his Ferrari and his favors?– for making off with some kitchen goods and produce? A frying pan and a handful of hotdogs, say? It makes no sense.
But let’s lay out the story in a little more detail. First, roughly speaking, everything above is true. The mystery man who lent Governor McDonnell his $190,000 Ferrari is one Jonnie Williams, chief executive of tobacco-company-turned-nutritional-supplement-purveyor Star Scientific, Inc. For much of its history, Star Scientific focused on “alternative tobacco products” such as Ariva, a tobacco-based lozenge that delivers more nicotine than a cigarette in a convenient pill. But recently, the company has announced that it will stop making tobacco products altogether and focus instead on dietary supplements and facial creams. The dietary supplement will ‘organically’ reduce inflammation and may help folks stricken with Alzheimer’s—or so the company literature suggests.
In Virginia to date, two of Mr. Jonnie William’s biggest political pals have been Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and Governor Bob McDonnell. This makes sense because Virginia public servants and tobacco go together like mint and julep. In fact, Cuccinelli is so obviously enamored of Williams’ business acumen that his one and only declared stock investment is in Star Scientific. He has also, it should be mentioned, received gifts from Williams totaling at least $18,000.
According to the C-Ville Times, McDonnell has benefited even more from Williams’ largesse, declaring more than $9,600 worth of gifts from the company in 2011 and 2012, and accepting over $100,000 in free air travel for himself and his political action committee since 2009. Even worse, the governor failed to disclose the fact that the $15,000 catering bill for his daughter Cailin’s 2011 wedding (which was held at the Executive Mansion) was paid by Williams. Around the same time, McDonnell’s wife Maureen traveled to Florida to tout Star Scientific’s latest anti-inflammatory product, and later co-hosted an Executive Mansion luncheon with her husband to promote the product.
Why does any of this matter? Well, the fact that Star Scientific is currently engaged in a legal battle with the Commonwealth of Virginia over a $700,000 tax bill (and was forced to repay $300,000 of a nearly $1 million state grant due to its failure to create jobs) does not instill great confidence in the company. Add to that the fact that both Cuccinelli and McDonnell kept their dealings with Williams hidden as long as legally possible, and the entire thing starts to whiff faintly of scandal, even beyond the usual odor of Virginia politics as usual.
Ultimately, you have to ask, did those revelations come about because of pangs of principled conscience, or because somebody, or something made Ken and the Governor give it up?
I won’t hold you in suspense: I suspect the later. That someone or something is a fellow named Todd Schneider who, until quite recently, was the Executive Chef for the Governor’s mansion.
Now this is where the story gets interesting. Up until the moment that The Cooch had to reveal all his shenanigans with Williams and Star Scientific, this particular story was pretty tame—at least by Virginia standards—which, by the way, ranks 47th in ethics out of all the other states, meaning we’re in the top three for corruption (we excel at some things besides puerility, after all. Who knew?). But If Todd Schneider’s defense is correct in their timeline—and their story is as credible as Cuccinelli’s or McDonnell’s, if not more so—than what went down with Star Scientific and the Governor’s Mansion’s kitchen was something like this:
Several months before Schneider’s March 2012 departure, someone called the state’s hotline for waste, fraud and abuse allegations.
Subsequently, Schneider, a well-known Richmond personality whose Web site says he trained with Martha Stewart, was charged with four felony counts of embezzling more than $200.
Simple on its surface—and rather clean—if that were the end of the story. But it’s not.
According to the Washington Examiner, “In defending himself against the embezzlement charges, Schneider suggests that he was told to pay himself by “taking it out in trade” when the state would not pay him. [In other words, grab stuff in our pantry to pay for your services]. Also, according to Schneider’s defense team, “Schneider told investigators more than a year ago that a wealthy businessman (Williams) paid for $15,000 in food at the wedding of McDonnell’s daughter but that the governor never disclosed the gift. His lawyer, Steve Benjamin, argued that Cuccinelli, who had his own ties to Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr., did not pursue the matter. Furthermore, their questions suggest that McDonnell children not living at the mansion — either because they were away at college or grown up and living on their own — raided the state pantry, refrigerator and liquor cabinet.”
According to the Washington Post, “The attorney for Chef Todd Schneider made it clear at [last] Thursday’s hearing that he plans to push the idea that Schneider is a whistleblower whose tips about alleged wrongdoing by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen, were ignored by Cuccinelli.”
Among other things, the defense motions seek records concerning “state goods and resources” taken by McDonnell, his wife, Maureen, and their five children, including: “lodging and resources provided to Jeanine McDonnell during her residence at [gubernatorial retreat] Camp Pendleton, believed to be for several months in early 2012; bottled waters, cups, Gatorade, protein powder and other items taken from the mansion by Sean and Bobby McDonnell for use at their college residences; flats of eggs taken from the mansion by Rachel McDonnell; liquor taken by Rachel McDonnell or her boyfriend, Nick, from the mansion for a private party at Camp Pendleton; pots and pans from the mansion given to Jeanine, Rachel or Cailin McDonnell by Maureen McDonnell.”
That’s pretty funny actually, and farcical. So much so that The Rachel Maddow Show spent a few minutes making national fun of the new Virginia food scandal.
“Keeping it classy and fast, Virginia!” she quipped. Ouch.
So did Schneider actually embezzle the state and is he simply politicizing the story in his defense as Cuccinelli contends, or was he a whistleblower whom Cuccinelli is trying to silence through an abusive use of his office?
No one knows, at this point, and frankly, the truth might lie somewhere between those two extremes. But it’s worth noting that neither McDonnell nor Cuccinelli had said word one about their financial relationships with Star Scientific and Williams until forced to do so because of the Schneider case. And, of course, we have Cuccinelli’s history of using, if not abusing, his power as Attorney General for ideological ends far beyond the limits of his office.
The Cooch just doesn’t fit into the Southern gentleman’s suit where such transgressions in propriety would be frowned upon. He’s got a little mean streak, after all. Maybe it’s the Italian in him. Maybe it’s the Northern latitude of his birthplace (born in New Jersey, an area Bruce Springsteen famously noted can ‘rip the bones from your back’). Maybe he has a deeply suppressed desire for men (witness his peculiar fascination with sodomy). Whatever the cause, something isn’t healthy, and besides filing frivolous lawsuits that gets you very much unwanted media exposure as you try to run for public office, it tends to distort personalities in other ways. You write ridiculous books filled with delusions of self-important grandeur. And most importantly, you use your power in vindictive ways that can sometimes come back to bite you.
The Cooch’s vindictiveness is pretty well documented. In a quixotic effort to deny climate change, Cuccinelli sought a broad range of documents related to Michael E. Mann, a climate researcher now at Penn State who was an assistant professor at UVA from 1999 to 2005. The Cooch was trying to set Mann up for a violation of the 2002 Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act—which, frankly, was a real stretch, arguing with no discernible merit that climate change wasn’t real and his research was somehow fraudulent. While climate change skeptics have challenged Mann’s work, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and a Penn State investigation cleared Mann of charges that he falsified or suppressed data. Of course, what should have been– at most– an argument between well-regarded scientists turned into a ridiculous and highly politicized match between climate change skeptics and the scientific community. The Washington Post quoted Rachel Levinson, senior counsel with the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) as saying Cuccinelli’s request had “echoes of McCarthyism.”
A. Barton Hinkle of the Richmond Times-Dispatch (one of the most conservative newspapers on the Earth, I would note) criticized Cuccinelli for “employing a very expansive reading of Virginia’s Fraud Against Taxpayers Act.”
But that’s not the only time Cuccinelli used the power of his office to pursue an obvious ideological end.
In June, after nine hours of debate and two votes by the Va Board of Health members agreed to ‘grandfather in’ existing abortion-performing clinics so that they wouldn’t need to immediately comply with the newly passed TRAP (Targeted Regulations Against Abortion Providers) law.
But after a 10-year quest to pass this legislation as a state legislator, Cuccinelli was determined to get what he wanted — the most extreme version possible. So, first, he refused to certify the new regulations if the board didn’t reverse their vote. But then he went even further, and vindictively told members that the state would not represent them if they were sued in response to their decision. So not only did he say he would refuse to sign the regulations, but he threatened to leave them without the state’s legal defense if they were sued as a result of their decision. In other words, sign off on this, and open yourself up to any potential libel suit.
According to the Washington Post, “it was in keeping with Mr. Cuccinelli’s crusading style when he threatened members of the state Board of Health, warning that they might have to bear the cost of their own legal defense unless they toed his line on abortion regulations. That gambit bore fruit a few days later when the board, evidently intimidated, reversed a position it had taken in June and voted to impose severe new regulations on abortion clinics, where most of Virginia’s 25,000 annual abortions take place.”
Happy days for women’s clinics all across the state.
Unfortunately for the Cooch, this destructive victory may have given him a sense of invulnerability he doesn’t really possess. Maybe he decided he could use his power to silence a whistleblower in much the same way.
Whatever the case, if the broad outline of Schneider’s story is true, one can imagine a half-dozen different scenarios in which Cuccinelli might have avoided what is turning into a major political embarrassment. A little more emphasis on propriety, a little less swaggering and pugilistic prosecuting might have sailed him over these troubled seas without a whisper. But The Cooch is The Cooch and one can sense his anger at having some audacious chef taking it to the Governor and his own office. So perhaps he used his power to try to silence him; but as any good Southern gentleman will tell you, Cooch: you don’t burn the help.
Oh, and now The Washington Post reports, the FBI is interested, too.
Link here for the quotes and payday lending information above.
*Cuccinelli was the Only Member of the Senate to Not Vote on Legislation to Cap Exorbitant Payday Lending Interest Rates
In April 2008, Cuccinelli was the only member of the state Senate to abstain from voting on bipartisan legislation to cap exorbitant interest rates charged by payday lenders.
According to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, the bill would cap interest rates at 36 percent, extend the time borrowers have to repay loans, and limit to ten the number of loans that may be obtained in a year. The bill would also require the creation of a database to track borrowers and loans and allow lenders to charge a $5 fee per loan to pay for the creation and maintenance of the system.
The bill was the result of three years of negotiation and passed the Senate 38-0-1 (abstention) and the House 90-7 and was signed into law. SB 588, Vote 4/23/08; Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, General Assembly Preliminary Legislative Report 2008
**Cuccinelli Previously Collected $27,400 from Payday Industry
In March 2011, an editorial in the Virginian Pilot noted, “He has collected $27,400 from predatory lending companies over the past decade, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.” [Virginian Pilot Editorial, 3/09/11]