The executive chef of disgraced former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen McDonnell said the former first lady of Virginia would regularly yell and swear at her staff along with routinely flaunting their lavish lifestyle.
“She was not balanced,” Todd Schneider told ABC’s “20/20” in an exclusive interview in which he revealed sordid details about what life was like behind closed doors at the Virginia governor’s mansion during McDonnell’s term. “You had your Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde ... every day you didn’t know what you were walking into.”
Former Gov. Bob McDonnell and Maureen McDonnell were convicted last week on corruption charges. A Richmond jury found Bob McDonnell guilty on 11 of 14 corruption counts and his wife was found guilty on nine corruption counts and obstruction of justice.
The charges stemmed from granting favors to a wealthy Virginia businessman in exchange for more than $177,000 worth of lavish gifts, vacations, and loans. The pair was acquitted of bank fraud charges.
“The First Lady’s office was right next to my kitchen so we were very close,” Schneider said. “I could see everything that was happening and almost hear everything…we all talked in the kitchen.”
Prior to working for the McDonnells, Schneider was a chef to the stars, cooking for Steven Spielberg, Garth Brooks and the Clintons, among others. It was his willingness to please that made him a favorite with the McDonnells.
“I was very close with Maureen and the governor,” he said. “I was basically living with them. I was basically part of the family.”
When he first met the McDonnells, Schneider said they were “fun, outgoing, very charismatic,” but he said the stresses of being a governor’s wife made Maureen McDonnell increasingly unpredictable, overly demanding and frequently verbally abusive.
“She would just say anything that came out of her mouth, but she really talked down to you, and she would swear at you,” Schneider said.
The first screaming incident with Maureen, Schneider said, happened with the director of the governor’s mansion.
“They were upstairs with guests and Maureen got upset and called her a f****** bitch, and screamed and her, and called her an idiot, and the director came down crying,” he said.
Afterwards, Schneider said he pulled Maureen aside.
“And I just, ‘you cannot talk to people this way. You are the first lady of Virginia.’ ‘Well, she’s an idiot,’ and I go, ‘but you can’t do that.’”
According to Schneider, this was just one of her frequent blow-ups. Another example of her wrath, he said, was that Maureen wanted her bed sheets ironed and starched, and would berate the housemaids if the beds weren’t made correctly.
“If the sheets were about an inch on either side, she’d strip the bed and make them come back up and make it again,” he said.
But he said Maureen was usually cordial to him.
“She didn't berate me as much as she did the other people, I think just because we were closer,” Schneider said. “I think it depended who you were.”
Things got so bad at the governor’s mansion, Schneider said, members of the staff wrote a letter threatening to quit if things did not change. But Schneider said the letter was never given to the first lady.
“The letter was delivered to the chief of staff and to the governor and to someone else,” he said. “They had a meeting with us and said, ‘everything’s going to be cool, don’t worry about it. We’ll take care of her, and it’s all going to be fine.’ and we went, ‘OK.’”
But things were far from being fine and Schneider said being in the governor’s mansion only emboldened Maureen to flaunt her connections and lavish gifts. A frequent visitor, Schneider said, was Jonnie Williams, the founder and CEO of Star Scientific Inc., a pharmaceutical company that produced an anti-inflammatory pill called Anatabloc. Williams acknowledged under testimony that he contributed gifts and loans with the hopes of gaining access and federal testing for his company’s products.
When he came over to the governor’s mansion, “he got carte blanche,” Schneider recalled. “And he was treated very well. ... He was there for a reason.”
According to Schneider, not only was Williams making regular appearances at the mansion, but so were the gifts he was buying for the governor’s family, everything from golf clubs and outings, to paid vacations, to a $20,000 designer shopping spree in New York City, to a $6,500 Rolex watch that McDonnell said in court that his wife gave him as a Christmas present.
“We knew things were getting better financially… you’d hear through the grapevine in the house where it was coming from,” Schneider said.
Schneider said the McDonnells would constantly throw parties and catering requests would come often and would be extravagant and short notice, so much so that he often had to borrow food from his own private restaurant and catering business.
“I had to call my restaurant and I had to say, ‘I need all this food,’” he said. “And we were invoicing them.”
But according to Schneider, the director of the mansion told him it was a conflict of interest for his private company to be paid for their services, and came up with an alternative plan.
“They said, ‘Well, why don’t we do this? We’ll do a barter system. You can take back what we owe you in food and we’ll call it that,’” Schneider said. “The voice down in me said, ‘Not kosher.’ But here you have everybody telling me it’s cool. So, I did it. And that’s what I was doing from then on… [and] this governor had parties every day.”
The McDonnell’s hired Schneider’s company to cater their daughter’s wedding, but when the $15,000 payment was due, the source of the check raised eyebrows.
“That's what started it, was the check and the $15,000 that they received from Jonnie Williams,” Schneider said. “I said, ‘Copy it.’ For some reason, I don't know why, something said, ‘Copy this check.’”
Before the McDonnells’ lifestyle unraveled, Schneider said he would come into his kitchen to find the mansion pantry raided -- the governor’s friends and five children having cleaned it out of food and home goods bought with the mansion’s state budget.
Then, in a shocking twist, Schneider said he was accused of stealing food and charged with embezzlement. He pleaded no contest. In an attempt to help clear his name, he turned over documents and invoices, including the copy of the $15,000 check.
“I did everything I was told to do, and that's why I was really hurt by everything that happened to me,” Schneider said. “I thought I was part of that family. We were so close.”
The McDonnells are scheduled to appear in court on Jan. 6, 2015 for sentencing. The maximum sentence for each corruption charge is 20 years in prison.