Cuccinelli’s Star: Lawyers to Take Case Pro Bono 

click to enlarge SCOTT EMQUIST

Like a peeling onion, the gift-giving scandal rocking the Executive Mansion is revealing layer after layer of influence. Consider who’s handling the court cases that attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli is too conflicted to handle.

Cuccinelli has declined to handle a tax case involving Henrico County dietary supplement-maker Star Scientific because he’s owned stock in the company. He also accepted $18,000 worth of gifts from Star Chief Executive Jonnie Williams. The case, in which Star is challenging a $700,000 state tax bill, has been dormant since August 2011. Cuccinelli’s stock and gifts only recently have come to light.

The other is a felony theft case against Todd Schneider, the former executive chef for Gov. Bob McDonnell, who also has accepted gifts from Star Scientific and Williams. In seeking recusal last week, Senior Assistant Attorney General Patrick W. Dorgan said there could a conflict because a key witness once worked as a Cuccinelli fundraiser.

So what happens if a state’s top legal officer finds himself too conflicted to do his job? “It’s not all that unusual,” says James Tierney, director of the National Attorney General Program at Columbia University Law School in New York. “Someone else picks it up and once you are out, you are out.”

In some cases, the disqualifications can get expensive.

Carl Tobias, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Richmond law school, says the attorney general’s office needed recusal in a lawsuit filed by Earl Washington Jr., who spent years in prison and was nearly executed for a 1982 rape and murder that DNA testing later showed he didn’t commit.

Richmond’s McGuireWoods law firm ended up representing him for about $1 million, Tobias says. Washington was awarded damages of $2.25 million in 2006.

It doesn’t seem likely that the state will be on the hook for anything close to $1 million for Cuccinelli’s recent recusals. Two lawyers from the Troutman Sanders law firm are picking up the Star Scientific tax case for free: Stephen D. Rosenthal, a Democrat who was attorney general from 1993 to 1994, and William H. Hurd, a Republican who was state solicitor general from 1999 to 2004.

“Bill and I are veterans of the attorney general’s office and have high regard for it,” Rosenthal says. “We agreed to take it over for them at no cost to the Virginia taxpayer.”

A Richmond judge appointed Norfolk Commonwealth’s Attorney Gregory D. Underwood to prosecute Schneider.

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