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Virginia governor's former chef reaches plea deal, avoids trial

By Gary Robertson

RICHMOND, Virginia (Reuters) - The former chef at the Virginia governor's mansion pleaded no contest on Wednesday to two misdemeanor embezzlement charges, averting a trial near Election Day that could have had repercussions on the race for governor.

Former chef Todd Schneider's plea agreement in Richmond Circuit Court calls for no jail time but orders him to pay the state $2,300 for food he was charged with taking.

The case came up in the midst of a federal probe of the relationship between Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, a Republican, and a major donor, Star Scientific Inc Chief Executive Jonnie Williams.

McDonnell has acknowledged receiving more than $160,000 in loans and gifts from Williams, who also was a major donor to the governor's campaign. The governor in July apologized for embarrassing the state and he has repaid the loans and said he returned the gifts Williams had given to him and his family.

When Schneider, who worked in the governor's mansion from 2010 to early 2012, was confronted in early 2012 with charges that he had taken food from the governor's mansion to support his own catering service, he met with federal authorities and investigators from the attorney general's office and told them about Williams's relationship with the governor.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a Republican seeking to succeed McDonnell, brought the initial charges against Schneider, but later recused himself from the case after he too was pulled into the Williams case.

Cuccinelli last week apologized for accepting about $18,000 in gifts from Williams and said he has given a check in that amount to charity. An investigation found that Cuccinelli had broken no laws.

Following the no-contest plea, Schneider's defense attorney, Steven Benjamin, criticized Cuccinelli for having charged his client.

"These charges should never have been brought," Benjamin said. He accused Cuccinelli of charging Schneider for his own "personal and political reasons."

Had Schneider not reached a plea deal, his trial would have begun on October 15.

"From the standing of the Cuccinelli campaign, having this trial not take place is good news," said Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. "Having that kind of public trial in the heat of an election, calling all kinds of top Republicans to testify, none of the aspects of this case would have been good news for Republicans."

A poll released on Wednesday showed Cuccinelli closing in on his Democratic rival, Terry McAuliffe.

(Editing by Scott Malone and Ken Wills)

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