The latest turn in the McDonnell gifts scandal involves a familiar entity — the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission — which has essentially served as a slush fund for pet projects in Virginia’s tobacco land for more than a decade.
No surprise there. The tobacco fund is swimming with money from the 1998 settlement with the four major tobacco companies and offers up a cornucopia of funds to projects chosen by the commission staff and board.
The settlement was a whopping $206 billion over 25 years to 46 states and the District. States could distribute money according to vague guidelines, but the gist was that it was supposed to go to address the health consequences from tobacco use by supporting people suffering from tobacco-related diseases and helping to keep young people from smoking.
Virginia took that a step further and went for economic development in the state’s leaf tobacco belt, which stretches from the Southside region around Interstate 95 all the way west to the coal fields. The Virginia commission has a checkered history. Its former head, John W. Forbes II, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2010 for wire fraud involving skimming from the commission.And when the commission got underway, its first act was not to do something to stop teenagers from smoking, it was to send checks of up to $12,000 to people who held tobacco “quotas” in a now-defunct federal program.
A decade ago, my research showed that in the early years of the commission, 28 percent of the checks didn’t even go to people who lived in Virginia but to places like Brooklyn, the Gold Coast of Chicago and Las Vegas. These recipients happened to have inherited “quotas,” and the Tobacco Commission felt they needed to be made whole since the tobacco industry was taking hits.
Now, The Post reports, federal prosecutors are examining e-mails to determine whether Star Scientific boss Jonnie R. Williams Sr. was pushing Gov. Robert McDonnell and his wife to help get research funds from the Tobacco Commission so Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Virginia could start investigating “anatabine,” a substance derived from tobacco that Williams believes has important medicinal properties. He now uses it in his over-the-counter vitamin supplement “Anatabloc.”
This is where it all starts getting squirmy. Lawyers for the McDonnells say that they did not intercede to help Williams get any tobacco money, despite the $150,000 or more they got from Williams in gifts and loans. The Tobacco Commission apparently did not provide any money for Star research.
But a slew of e-mails suggest that researchers from VCU and UVA believed that the McDonnells wanted the tobacco commission to help Williams. “The governor would like to sponsor these trials as evidence of Virginia’s commitment to research and entrepreneurship,” wrote VCU diabetes researcher John Clore. In addition, Mary Shea Sutherland, chief of staff for First Lady Maureen McDonnell, was on a private plane to attend a July 2011 conference in Maryland hosted by Star.
According to the Post, under federal law, it can be illegal for elected officials to agree to take official actions in exchange for gifts and money even if they do not follow through on their promises or have the power to do so.
This is apparently the key question on which indictments could turn.
There’s a ton of coincidental or circumstantial material. The entire case crawls with bizarre connections. Here’s another one: Jerry Kilgore is a former attorney general who now represents Jonnie Williams. And guess who is the head of the Tobacco Commission? None other than Del. Terry Kilgore (R-Scott), Jerry’s brother.
Tobacco, Richmond power and lots of personal and family connections. In other words, it’s the Virginia way.