RICHMOND — State economic-development officials raised ethical flags before Virginia’s secretary of commerce watched a Washington Redskins playoff game from the team’s luxury box, according to newly released emails that also show that his last-minute effort to fill the suite with business prospects fell flat.
Only two business leaders and their spouses accepted Commerce Secretary Maurice Jones’s invitation to join him in the Redskins suite for the Jan. 10 game. Taxpayers were left with a $2,435.21 catering tab for the outing, which included a total of 15 state employees or their guests, all but six of them there strictly for fun.
Those details emerged last week in emails and other documents released to The Washington Post under a Freedom of Information request.
The documents supply some of the answers that the administration of Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has declined to provide in recent weeks as controversy about Jones’s trip to the Redskins box has simmered in Richmond. But the heavily redacted documents also leave many unknowns, including the identities of those in the box besides Jones and an aide, Kelly Spraker.
The documents also hint at tension between Jones and officials working for the state’s economic-development arm, the Virginia Economic Development Partnership. The secretary and VEDP are expected to work cooperatively to advance McAuliffe’s chief goal as governor: expanding and diversifying the state’s economy.
VEDP officials express frustration in emails as Jones pulled them into a frenzied effort to fill the box with people — and food. VEDP’s general counsel, Sandi McNinch, wound up having to give her personal credit-card number to a Jones aide in order to place the catering order.
As McNinch turned records about the Redskins suite over to The Post and other media outlets last week, she appeared to take a swipe at the idea that the football game was a legitimate economic-development event. In her cover letter to reporters, she said that the VEDP could not comment on “economic development projects, real or imagined.”
Reached by phone, McNinch declined to comment.
Jones, en route to a trade mission to Cuba with other officials from the D.C. region, did not respond to a request for comment.
But McAuliffe’s spokesman, Brian Coy, reiterated that Jones had clearance from a state ethics lawyer to accept the team’s gift as a means of wooing business leaders.
“We relied on the judgment of the person who is appointed to interpret this [ethics] law for state employees,” he said.
Jones was not the only Cabinet member with a hand in filling the suite.
“Levar had folks to invite,” VEDP Vice President Mike Lehmkuhler wrote, referring to Levar Stoney, secretary of the commonwealth. Stoney did not respond to a message seeking comment. Coy said Stoney was not at the game.
VEDP leaders turned down an offer to join Jones in the box, writing that they could not square the team’s gift with state ethics law. Dan Gundersen, VEDP’s chief operating officer, expressed that concern to Jones, the emails indicate.
“Dan was, quite properly, leery of VEDP accepting a gift of a box for a Skins game,” McNinch said in an email to Martin Briley, VEDP’s president. Briley wrote that he expressed the same sentiment in a voice mail to Jones. Briley and Gundersen could not be reached to comment.
State ethics law, tightened in response to a $177,000 gifts scandal involving former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen, prohibits public officials from accepting gifts worth more than $100 from people seeking to do business with the state. Redskins suites list online for $18,000 to $24,000 for regular-season games.
Jones got approval to accept the seats from Christopher Piper, executive director of the state’s ethics council, at a time when he and McAuliffe have been trying to lure the team from Maryland’s FedEx Field to Virginia.
The emails show Jones making a frenzied push on the Friday before the Sunday game to fill the 31-seat suite with business prospects. Coy said that the Redskins had offered the box only the preceding Thursday.
“Urgent request from Secretary Jones — Response needed within half hour,” read the subject line of a Friday morning email, which asked VEDP officials to supply names of potential guests.
VEDP officials chafed at the urgency — “We don’t have time to call these folks today,” one wrote — but assembled a list of at least 20 business prospects. The documents redact all their names.
When Jones’s office later asked VEDP if it would like to send a representative to the game, officials expressed confusion — and concern.
“Is there a business prospect involved or is this personal pleasure?” Gundersen wrote to McNinch.
“I don’t know and, for Conflict of Interest purposes, it doesn’t matter,” she replied. “The question is, has someone who is not a strong personal friend provided a gift to our folks worth over $100.”
Later that Friday, McNinch found herself putting the catering order on her personal credit card.
“Meggie said that she needed a credit card from us so she could process the order (!),” McNinch wrote to colleagues, referring to Meggie Lareau, another assistant to Jones. “We gave her my card number. . . . Meggie said that Maurice said that he believes that ‘most’ of the guests are VEDP guests. All in a day’s work.”
The expectation on all sides was that VEDP, which often pays to entertain business prospects, would reimburse McNinch. But VEDP balked at footing the full $2,435.21 catering bill after determining that only six of the 15 people were there for legitimate economic-development purposes.
The six were Jones, Spraker, the two economic-development prospects and the prospects’ spouses. That left nine others, including Spraker’s husband. Coy has declined to identify the other guests. He said they were added only after Jones was unable to fill the seats with business leaders.
Coy acknowledged in January that some of the people in the box were state government officials and their personal guests, but he had declined to say how many were there on official business. The documents make it clear that the vast majority were there just for pleasure.
Coy has declined to identify those guests because they paid the team $300 apiece for their tickets — nearly three weeks after the game, as Jones’s attendance was making news.
Coy also said in January that Spraker’s husband attended as a guest of the Redskins. On Friday, he said the husband paid for his own ticket. He said the original account was the result of miscommunication. Reached by phone, Spraker said she and her husband would not comment.
Since VEDP has agreed to pay catering costs for six guests, Jones’s office will pick up the rest of the tab, which amounts to $1,461.11. That makes McNinch whole but still leaves taxpayers on the hook for the full bill, now split between the state-funded VEDP and the commerce budget.
In January, Coy also said attendees who were not in the box to work paid for their own food and drink. On Friday, he said it was not clear who ate what, but he described the catering as a sunk cost.
Emails indicate that the state was up against a 4 p.m. Friday deadline to order food for the suite. Jones was still working to fill the suite with business prospects when his office ordered a spread for 25. When most of those invitations fell through, Coy said, it was too late to adjust the order for chicken tenders, hot dogs, craft beer and other items.
“It’s like you throw a birthday party and buy the guacamole,” he said, “and not as many people show up, but you still have the guacamole.”