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Chef's embezzlement trial could shake Virginia governor's race

By Gary Robertson

RICHMOND, Virginia (Reuters) - A Virginia judge delayed deciding whether to dismiss charges against a well-known chef who worked in the governor's mansion, in a case that could reverberate in the state's upcoming November gubernatorial election.

Richmond Circuit Court Judge Margaret Spencer on Monday delayed until the end of the week a decision on whether to dismiss felony embezzlement charges against Todd Schneider, former chef at the executive mansion.

She also left in place a gag order prohibiting lawyers involved in the case from speaking to the press in what has ballooned into a political scandal that threatens the legacy of Governor Bob McDonnell.

McDonnell, who has been mentioned as a possible 2016 Republican presidential candidate, also faces state and federal investigations over gifts he accepted from Star Scientific Inc Chief Executive Jonnie Williams Sr. - including $15,000 in catering services for the wedding of McDonnell's daughter.

The Schneider case could also affect state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who is seeking to succeed McDonnell. Under Virigina law, he is ineligible to run for re-election.

Cuccinelli, too, has acknowledged accepting gifts from Williams, though he initially failed to report them. The gifts include two stays at the CEO's waterfront property in southwest Virginia and a catered Thanksgiving dinner.

Schneider's attorney, Steven D. Benjamin, said in court on Monday that Cuccinelli had initially charged the chef, but then recused himself from prosecuting the case.

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' relationship with the governor.

"The trial hasn't even taken place, and already it's been a first-rate disaster for the Republicans," said Larry Sabato, who leads the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

Sabato said if the trial date remains October 15, it couldn't be worse for the GOP and Cuccinelli.

"More information will be revealed at the peak of the campaign season and the headlines will keep appearing," he said.

(Editing by Scott Malone and Leslie Gevirtz)

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