RICHMOND — Days after an audit criticized Virginia’s tobacco commission for its spending priorities, the state is paying more than $20,000 to send its executive director and two state lawmakers to France to recruit businesses to Virginia.
Del. Daniel W. Marshall III (R-Danville) and Sen. Frank M. Ruff Jr. (R-Mecklenburg) arrived in Paris on Monday and will leave Friday. Executive director Neal Noyes arrived Sunday and will depart June 28 for Cologne, Germany, where he will meet with company executives in town for an automotive convention until July 1.
The estimated cost for airfare, hotel and food is expected to be $21,123, according to the Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission.
It is at least the second overseas trip by members of the commission since 2001, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, which tracks money in politics. Last year, two members and Noyes spent more than $8,000 on a trip to England.
Marshall, reached by phone before he left for France, first questioned how The Washington Post heard about the trip. He then explained that the goal was to recruit companies to Virginia’s most economically depressed areas in Southside and southwest — regions the tobacco commission tries to boost with $1 billion from a legal settlement with the nation’s largest tobacco companies.
“It’s all about jobs, jobs, jobs,” Marshall said.
The three men will join Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) on Wednesday; he will be in France for the Paris Air Show, an international trade fair for the aerospace business held every other year.
They will spend much of Wednesday in meetings with executives of companies they hope to lure to Virginia, visit the state’s booth at the show and attend a reception and dinner McDonnell is hosting at the Cercle de l’Union social club. On Thursday, they will fly to Toulouse in southwest France to meet with company executives.
Noyes will then travel to Germany to attend the Automotive News Europe Congress.
Noyes’s trip is estimated to cost $10,489, including $1,800 for registration to attend the convention in Germany. Marshall’s expenses are $5,364, and Ruff’s are $5,270.
House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong (D-Henry), whose district benefits from the tobacco settlement but has been critical of the commission’s past spending, said he will not know if the money for the trip is being well spent until he sees whether it results in any jobs, but he said it may look inappropriate.
“At this time, when you have double digit unemployment . . . it certainly has the appearance of being extravagant,” Armstrong said. “On the heels of this scathing report, it sends a bad message.”
Last week, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission said the commission spent too much money on projects that did not generate jobs or boost salaries. In the past decade, 1,368 grants worth $756 million have been awarded for a variety of projects, including high-speed Internet access in rural areas, walking trails and improvements to the Martinsville Speedway. About $606 million is available for future grants.
Last weekend, after The Post reported that more than a dozen legislators were flying to France on unrelated trips paid by a company lobbying them to lift a ban on uranium mining in Virginia, Marshall criticized the lawmakers for taking “vacations” in his hometown newspaper, neglecting to say that he was going to the same country the same week.
Ruff did not return a phone call. Noyes defended the trip, saying he was flying coach and going to France because “that’s where the meetings are held.”
Last year, the chairman of the tobacco commission, Del. Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott), Ruff and Noyes went to England in July at the same time McDonnell went on a trade mission to Europe. The trip cost $8,291.
Both trips were built around luring suppliers for aircraft-engine maker Rolls-Royce, which opened a manufacturing and research facility in Prince George County in May, and companies to the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing, a research center set to open nearby next year.
McDonnell announced one deal after the Europe trip, according to his office. The Hornschuch Group, a producer and marketer of highly technical films, said it would invest $28.3 million to expand its O’Sullivan Films operation, creating 174 jobs, in Winchester, which is not in the tobacco commission’s region.
The cost of the trip for McDonnell; Jim Cheng, Virginia secretary of commerce and trade; and Vince Barnett, director of communications and promotions for the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, is $42,454, said McDonnell spokesman Jeff Caldwell.