Va. governor invites ex-nominee to attend Cabinet meetings

Former Cabinet nominee Bob Sledd is an unpaid senior adviser to Virginia's governor.
Former Cabinet nominee Bob Sledd is an unpaid senior adviser to Virginia's governor. (Steve Helber - AP)
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By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 21, 2010

RICHMOND -- Even though Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) dropped Richmond businessman Robert Sledd as his nominee for commerce and trade secretary under pressure from Democratic lawmakers, the governor is directing Sledd to attend daily Cabinet meetings.

McDonnell named Sledd as an unpaid senior economic adviser after it became clear that he could not win confirmation for the Cabinet post from the Democratic-controlled Senate.

The governor has not released a description of the new job, which did not exist in the previous administration. Sledd has an office alongside McDonnell's in the Patrick Henry Building and expects to report to work daily.

"I can invite anybody to the Cabinet that I want," McDonnell said in an interview. "I think Bob Sledd is probably the best job creator in Virginia and that's my top priority, and so when I'm talking to people in my Cabinet about job creation, I want him there for advice, for guidance."

McDonnell nominated businessman James Cheng for the commerce post on Sunday after Sledd declined to step down from the boards of three global companies -- corporate positions that Democratic senators said created a conflict of interest. Sledd had selected Cheng to be his deputy secretary.

Sledd serves on the boards of tobacco giant Universal Corp. and Owens & Minor, a medical supply company, both based in Virginia, and Pool Corp., a wholesaler of swimming pool and spa equipment, based in Louisiana. He had offered to step down from the Virginia boards, but not the one in Louisiana.

McDonnell initially said his Cabinet secretaries could serve on corporate boards, and officials at the governor's office continue to maintain that such service is "legal and permissible." But they said this week that that all Cabinet secretaries have voluntarily withdrawn from any directorships they held on Virginia corporate boards. They declined to say why McDonnell is distinguishing between in-state and out-of-state boards, or whether any secretaries remain on out-of-state boards.

It's unclear whether the Senate and the McDonnell administration will clash on any other Cabinet secretaries. State documents show that Cheng has served on two boards and that a handful of other secretaries have served on boards of their own consulting firms, though presumably they have resigned. Other secretaries' statement-of-economic-interest forms have not yet been filed with the state.

Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax), chairman of the committee that will hold confirmation hearings on the appointments, said that she doesn't see a distinction between companies that are in or out of state and that all such memberships create a potential problem. "Our position has been very clear," she said.

Howell said "time will tell" whether McDonnell is trying to circumvent the legislature by having Sledd attend Cabinet meetings. "They sidestepped the ethics issue by making him an adviser, and I guess that means he's going to sit next to the governor and advise him," she said.

House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong (D-Henry) said that it's an unusual practice but that he did not have a problem with McDonnell inviting Sledd into his inner circle.

"The governor's entitled to take counsel from whoever he wants," he said. "It doesn't strike me as problematic."

McDonnell said four or five other people not on the Cabinet are invited to Cabinet meetings, including counselor Jasen Eige. Past governors have also had others attend Cabinet meetings, though they were usually regular staff members and not advisers.

Former governor Timothy M. Kaine (D) invited Daniel G. LeBlanc, special adviser for workforce, to Cabinet meetings after he was rejected by the General Assembly from serving as secretary of the commonwealth. Republicans opposed the labor leader because they thought he did not believe in Virginia's right-to-work laws.

Some ethics experts say Sledd's role as a close adviser to McDonnell could potentially create problems if he has responsibilities similar to those he would have had as commerce secretary.

They noted that Sledd has an obligation to McDonnell and to the state, but he also has a fiduciary responsibility to help his companies, which could benefit from the knowledge he gains as an adviser to the governor.

"We don't know what he's going to do," said Thomas Donaldson, a professor in the department of legal studies and business ethics at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, a government watchdog group in Washington, said McDonnell can quell concerns by being as transparent as possible and releasing information about what Sledd's job is, how it differs from the secretary's and what role he will play in the administration.

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