Gov. Bob McDonnell speaks at the inauguration ceremony for James Madison University's sixth president on March 15, 2013, in Harrisonburg. (Nikki Fox/Associated Press)

Top aides to Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) expressed concerns about the governor’s participation in a 2011 event at the governor’s mansion that marked the launch of a dietary supplement made by a major McDonnell campaign donor, according to newly released e-mails.

“I don’t understand this? we are doing an event with them?” McDonnell’s communications director Tucker Martin wrote the evening before the event to Mary Shea Sutherland, the chief of staff for first lady Maureen McDonnell, who had organized the luncheon.

Sutherland had asked Martin to review and approve a news release that the donor, Star Scientific, intended to distribute about the event, which was to announce the launch of Anatabloc, its new dietary supplement.

A minute later, Martin wrote to Sutherland again.

“Are we sure we can do something like this?” he asked, copying a number of other senior McDonnell aides.

See emails obtained by The Washington Post showing exchanges between the governor’s office and Star Scientific officials.

McDonnell’s deputy chief of staff Matt Conrad responded to Martin quickly, promising to take the issue to the governor’s chief of staff.

“You were exactly right to be suspicious,” Conrad, a lawyer, wrote.

The documents, released to The Washington Post under a Freedom of Information Act request, provide new information about the circumstances that led the governor and his wife to open the mansion to Star, whose chief executive had paid $15,000 for the catering at the wedding of McDonnell’s daughter three months earlier.

The e-mails show that McDonnell attended the luncheon at the urging of his wife, Maureen, catching his own advisers off guard the day before the event. The governor found time to make an appearance while his office was consumed with a series of crises, including a rare earthquake and a powerful hurricane that hit the state in the week before the reception.

Efforts that the McDonnells undertook to boost Star are now the focus of an FBI inquiry. Both the governor and his wife attended the Star lunch, which was cited by investors in online postings as a reason to believe in the company despite its shaky finances.

Besides the catering, Star and its chief executive, Jonnie R. Williams Sr., have given McDonnell and his campaigns more than $120,000 in disclosed gifts and campaign contributions.

Ultimately, McDonnell’s aides signed off on a news release after it had been revised by the company to downplay the governor’s role in the event. The final release, still available on the company’s Web site, continued to tout that a gathering was being held at the governor’s mansion to discuss the science behind the pill, which did not require FDA approval.

Previous Washington Post coverage of Gov. Bob McDonnell and ties to Star Scientific.

Martin declined Monday to elaborate on his and Conrad’s concerns about the event or why it was allowed to proceed. “We will have no further comment on this event,” he said in an e-mail.

Sutherland, who resigned her mansion position in October 2011, also declined to comment on the e-mails.

Talhia Tuck, a spokeswoman for Star, said in a statement that the company “neither sought nor received any special benefits from any public official.” She said the company was “glad to be a party of any effort to promote business and create jobs” in the state.

First lady’s role

McDonnell’s aides have said the event was not unusual for a governor and first lady who have made promoting state businesses a priority. McDonnell attended in order to recognize the Virginia-based company for offering research grants to public universities. The grants were awarded at the lunch.

The event’s $1,696 cost was paid by the governor’s political action committee. Aides have not explained why they decided taxpayers should not pay for the event if it was a legitimate part of boosting the state’s economy.

The e-mails show that the first lady was the primary force behind the event, and there appeared to be confusion about it from the start among the governor’s staff.

Just over two weeks before the event, Sutherland e-mailed the governor’s scheduler to alert her to it.

“Per the [first lady], please put lunch on Aug. 30th on the Governor’s calendar — the lunch is with a number of researchers and doctors that she is hosting that day. She wants the Governor to attend the lunch,” Sutherland wrote.

Katherine Harris, who was in charge of McDonnell’s schedule, responded that the governor wouldn’t be able to attend the lunch. He was traveling to Washington from Richmond that day for his monthly appearance on WTOP’s “Ask the Governor” radio program and would not return to Richmond in time.

“To make the most of going up there, we will be filling the day with other events/meetings and he will come home later that evening” for another mansion event, the scheduler wrote.

Sutherland responded: “The FL isn’t going to be happy about it.”

Harris then promised to discuss the matter with the governor.

Ultimately, McDonnell would likely have been unable to stay in Washington on the day of the luncheon.

It occurred in the midst of one of the most trying stretches of his time in office. In early August 2011, a lightning strike sparked a wildfire in southern Virginia’s Great Dismal Swamp that swept smoke as far as Washington and Maryland.

On Aug. 23, the state was hit by a 5.8-magnitude earthquake that was felt along the Eastern Seaboard and caused damage to buildings near its epicenter in Louisa County. On Aug. 27, Virginia was battered by Hurricane Irene, which killed four people and caused widespread power outages and flooding.

“This has been quite a week,” McDonnell said on the “Ask the Governor” program on the morning of the Aug. 30 Star luncheon.

“seriously, we are so hurricane centric here I don’t have time to focus on this,” Martin wrote Sutherland in their initial exchange about the Star event.

Even Martin Kent, the governor’s chief of staff and top aide, appeared confused about the event hours before it took place.

“When is this planned? We need to discuss first,” he wrote. “Is the Governor aware of his inclusion in this release?”

Still, McDonnell put in an appearance at the Star lunch, stopping in between his morning trip to Washington and a late afternoon trip to suburban Richmond, where he conducted a hurricane relief press briefing at Virginia’s Emergency Operations Center along with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Change in emphasis

In June — three days before her daughter’s wedding — Maureen McDonnell flew to Florida to attend a gathering of doctors and investors discussing anatabine, a chemical found in tobacco and other plants that is the key ingredient in Star Scientific’s Anatabloc pills.

There, she expressed support for the product and said she believed it could be used to lower health-care costs in Virginia.

“In a brief talk, she offered the Governors mansion for the ‘launch’ of Anatabloc that Star is now packaging and readying to go to market,” investor John Faessel, who attended the event, wrote in an online stock newsletter at the time.

As the mansion event approached, the documents suggest that aides sought to stress the research grants offered by Star Scientific and downplay the support the McDonnells were providing to the company.

On the day before the event, a Star official sent Sutherland what she described as a “final draft” of the company’s planned news release.

That version mentioned the attendance of the governor and his wife at the launch event and included a quote from Williams thanking the first couple for their support of Star and its subsidiary, Rock Creek Pharmaceuticals.

“All of us at Star and Rock Creek are very grateful to the Governor and Mrs. McDonnell for their interest in our research and product development,” said Williams in the draft.

“NO WAY this can go as written,” Sutherland responded to the company official. “You can call me . . . and I’ll talk you through the issues.”

In response, company officials removed all direct references to the governor and first lady. “Hope this works better,” the Star executive wrote.

“A group of Richmond area physicians and healthcare providers are gathering at the Virginia Governor’s mansion today to learn more about the state of the research on Anatabloc,” the final release read.

In internal mansion documents, the event was described only vaguely as a lunch for Virginia scientists, which appears to have sparked questions among aides.

“I hope I’m not losing my mind completely. . . . do you know anything about a ‘Lunch for Virginia Researchers’ scheduled at the Mansion for the 30th?” the governor’s scheduler wrote to the director of the mansion in mid-August.

But the event's true purpose was clear.

“That’s the lunch MM is hosting for jonnie williams,” the mansion director wrote back.

Alice Crites contributed to this report.