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Concerns among the governor’s staff should have scuttled a mansion event for Star Scientific
Friday, June 7, 2013
Gov. Bob McDonnell can’t blame poor staff work for any trouble that comes from his relationship with Star Scientific Inc. and its CEO, Jonnie Williams Sr.
That much became clear this week when The Washington Post published emails documenting red flags that McDonnell’s aides raised before an Aug. 30, 2011, luncheon at the Executive Mansion. Star Scientific used the event, attended by researchers and health care providers, to announce the launch of its new dietary supplement. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, attended the luncheon, where the company also awarded research grants to state universities. The first lady’s office organized the event.
When he saw a draft of a company news release on the eve of the event, McDonnell’s communications director, Tucker Martin, circulated an email asking: “Are we sure we can do something like this?” Martin raised the concern even as he and other top staffers were coordinating responses to an earthquake and a hurricane that had occurred during the previous week. McDonnell’s deputy chief of staff quickly responded to Martin’s alert, writing: “You were exactly right to be suspicious.”
The event went on as scheduled. In a revised news release, Star Scientific promoted the mansion event without mentioning the McDonnells’ participation. But the governor’s political action committee covered the luncheon’s cost.
McDonnell told reporters this week that the emails were being misread and that he attended the event because of the grant awards, not to promote Star Scientific. The company said it neither requested nor received special treatment from the governor’s office.
But these latest disclosures do nothing to dampen the perception of a too-chummy relationship between McDonnell and Williams. About three months before the luncheon, Williams had paid the $15,000 catering bill for the wedding of McDonnell’s daughter. McDonnell and his political action committee also have received more than $120,000 in gifts and donations from Star Scientific and Williams. The email traffic among harried McDonnell staffers reveals concerns about holding such an event in the mansion. Perhaps red flags were missed because the administration was consumed, as it should have been, with back-to-back natural disasters.
As if this development isn’t bad enough, McDonnell acknowledged this week that he may have to correct his financial disclosure statement to clarify his wife’s relationship with the charitable arm of a Bristol coal and real estate company that paid her $36,000 for consulting work.
If Virginia had tighter ethics laws, and an independent commission to help enforce them, these judgment calls would be easier to make. Even in the eye of hurricane.