Donald McEachin sues attorney general's office for Star Scientific records

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - A Democratic state senator has gone to court to compel the attorney general's office to release communications involving a businessman who is at the center of a political scandal.

Sen. Donald McEachin said Tuesday he filed the lawsuit in Richmond Circuit Court after the attorney general's office put up "unreasonable obstacles" to his request for the release of the communications between business executive Jonnie R. Williams Jr. and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. Cuccinelli is the Republican candidate for governor.

Williams is the chief executive of a tiny nutritional supplements company in suburban Richmond who gave thousands of dollars in gifts and money to Cuccinelli and more than $124,000 worth of gifts and loans to Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell and his family. Federal and state criminal investigations are looking into McDonnell's ties to Williams and his company.

While most of the giving was never disclosed on McDonnell's annual statements of economic interest, he has said their exclusion was in accordance with the state's weak financial disclosure laws.

In April, Cuccinelli amended four years' worth of economic interest filings to add $18,000 in gifts from Williams he said he had earlier forgotten. Seeking to put the issue behind him, he wrote a personal check for $18,000 to a Richmond charity earlier this month.

McEacchin and other Democrats have called for Cuccinelli to resign while he runs for governor. McEacchin said his open records request and lawsuit filed Monday are being pursued in the interest of "transparency."

"What did the attorney know, when did he know it, when did he start meeting with Star Scientific, when did he start meeting with Jonnie Williams?" McEachin said at a news conference outside his law office. "I think the people of Virginia are entitled to know."

In response to McEachin's lawsuit, a spokesman for the attorney general's office said the extent of McEachin's Freedom of Information Act request would have required every worker in the office "to drop what they're doing and search for documents for him."

The spokesman, Brian Gottstein, said the law allows the office to seek some payment of the costs before the search has begun. The "enormity of the request" would require just under $15,000 to begin the search, he wrote in an email.

Gottstein said McEachern declined to advance a portion of the costs or work to narrow the scope of the documents he is seeking.

In his FOIA letter dated June 10, McEachin sought all communications between Williams and any member of the attorney general's office. He also sought any communications regarding a "potential conflict of interest" in the state's case against former Executive Mansion chef Todd Schneider.

Schneider pleaded no contest last week to two misdemeanor counts related to taking food from the governor's mansion.

Cuccinelli began the investigation and prosecution of Schneider in early 2012 before stepping aside for a special prosecutor. The move followed news reports of conflicts of interest and entanglements for himself as well as McDonnell over gifts from Williams.