RICHMOND (WRIC)—As the scandal surrounding Governor Bob McDonnell lingers on, the cost of his attorneys continues to rise—and Virginia taxpayers are footing the bill.
Anyone who's ever watched a cop show is likely familiar with the Miranda rights, and therefore knows that if a criminal suspect cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for him or her. Yet while Virginians are paying for McDonnell's six-figure legal bills, state residents in need of a lawyer are provided just a fraction of the governor's legal support.
"Personally, I find it to be kind of offensive that the attorney general and the governor have gone out and hired a $495-an-hour lawyer," said Virginia Delegate Scott Surovell, a Democrat from Fairfax.
8News obtained legal bills that show some of the governor's lawyers charging as much as $250 an hour. Other lawyers on his case charge $495 an hour. Virginia's court-appointed attorney pay scale averages just $10 an hour.
"The maximum fee the state pays on a felony, for which you can get 20 years or more, is $1,200," Surovell said. "I think it reinforces voter perceptions that the people who are in control of government and have the means can get what they want, and everybody else gets crumbs and table scraps."
Bill Oglesby, who teaches legal ethics at VCU, says that unlike the cap on court-appointed attorneys' paychecks, under current law there's no limit on how much public funds can be used to defend the governor.
"These are unchartered waters for Virginia," Oglesby said. "Never have we had a governor who has faced this kind of legal dilemma, so we're faced with the law as it exists."
The costly legal assistance is connected with the criminal case against former governor's mansion chef Todd Schneider, who was accused of taking food and other goods from the Executive Mansion kitchen. Schneider pled no contest to two misdemeanor embezzlement charges last week, as part of an agreement with prosecutors.
While under investigation, Schneider let it slip to authorities that Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams had given high-priced gifts—including jewelry, vacations and cash—to the governor and his family.
Schneider's embezzlement case and the investigation into Gov. McDonnell for misconduct are intertwined. It's difficult to tell just what legal services taxpayers are funding, because the governor's office blacked out much of the information on the legal bills, citing attorney-client privilege.
"It's really inappropriate," said Surovell.
Del. Surovell recently called out Gov. McDonnell and Atty. Gen. Ken Cuccinelli in his online newsletter, "The Dixie Pig." He writes that Virginia's top politicians should "practice what they preach," and if a few hundred dollars of public funding is all that goes toward defending needy Virginians, then the same should go for the governor.
Surovell will soon introduce legislation that essentially says what's good enough for the poorest of Virginians is good enough for the Commonwealth's most powerful.
"It will be fair, $1,200 for everybody," Surovell said. "If that's what the state thinks a lawyer is worth to protect somebody's rights who's facing the rest of their life in jail, then I think that's good enough for the governor and his staff."
Taxpayers are stuck with legal bills upwards of $240,000 because Atty. Gen. Cuccinelli and his office have conflict of interest issues with the cases involving the governor, Todd Schneider and Jonnie Williams, who gave gifts to both McDonnell and Cuccinelli.
The attorney general's office normally represents state workers and agencies, but in this instance outside lawyers had to be brought in. The issue is just how high-priced those lawyers are.
Copyright 2013 by Young Broadcasting of Richmond
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