RICHMOND — The Virginia state senator who met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad last week made his unlikely journey at the expense of a Florida businessman, who estimated the cost was $10,000.
State ethics officials signed off on the gift to Sen. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun) ahead of his trip to the war-torn country, finding that it complied with state ethics laws. He will be required to report the free business-class air travel and accommodations on the financial disclosure form he files with the state.
But Black is not sure how to put a dollar figure on something the Syrian government lavished on him during his visit: security.
“We went around in a four-ton, bulletproof car,” he said. “When we went to Palmyra, as we were traveling some of the roads, they had a very large assault jet flying in at treetop level with ear-splitting roars. And on the other side were four assault helicopters. And we had a truck with a dual-barreled cannon on the front.”
Accounting for largesse of that sort will be a new one in Richmond, even after three rounds of ethics reform.
“I don’t think that was contemplated when we talked about gifts,” Black said. “I couldn’t tell you the cost of that. I suspect I could have gone out there in a Vespa motor scooter and putted down the road, but I might have needed to wear a black wig and darkened my skin so I didn’t get kidnapped by the rebels.”
The General Assembly has overhauled the state’s ethics rules every year since 2014, when Robert F. McDonnell (R) left the governor’s mansion in the aftermath of a $177,000 gifts scandal. But legislators left room for extravagant largesse from certain givers.
Once free to take unlimited personal gifts, Virginia’s public officials can no longer accept anything worth more than $100 from lobbyists or government contractors.
But Black’s benefactor, Tampa area gasoline wholesaler Paul Jallo, is neither. So there is no limit on his gifts.
A Syrian-born Christian, Jallo became aware of Black in 2014, when the senator wrote a well-publicized letter to Assad, thanking him for protecting Syrian Christians. Jallo Oil Distributors has since donated $10,000 to Black’s Senate campaign account.
The average public official might not welcome an all-expenses-paid jaunt to a war-ravaged country. Two members of Congress initially planned to join Black and Jallo on the trip but backed out because of security concerns, Jallo said in an interview Tuesday. He declined to identify them.
Black, 71, said the most valuable thing he got out of the week-long trip, which included a two-hour sit-down with Assad and several days in Lebanon, was a deeper understanding of the region.
“It sort of took it from black-and-white to Technicolor,” Black said. He came away more convinced than ever that the United States should respect Assad, he said.
The White House considers Assad a brutal dictator and suggested last week that Black’s view stemmed from ignorance.
Jallo, 48, spent his early years in Syria but mostly grew up in Lebanon and moved as a teenager to New York, where he found work sewing handbags in the city’s garment district. He followed a brother into the gas station business and today has a string of stations in New York, New Jersey and Florida, as well as a wholesale business.
“I came to the U.S. with no money,” said Jallo, whose Instagram account is filled with images of his palm-lined mansion, exotic cars and Jesus. “This is the American Dream. You come to America. If you’re a good person and work hard, God always blesses.”
Jallo said he wants nothing from Black or the state of Virginia, just peace in his homeland. He hopes attention drawn by Black’s visit will contribute to that cause.
“Senator Black feels if Assad goes, ISIS will take over Syria,” Jallo said, referring to the Islamic State. “He believes all the Christians will be killed, and I believe the same thing.”
As a state legislator, Black plays no role in crafting U.S. foreign policy. But he has an intense interest in international affairs as a Vietnam veteran and former Pentagon lawyer who was stationed in Germany in the 1980s.
While in Syria, Black said he was free to go wherever he liked. When visiting a hospital in Damascus, he said he darted down corridors at will and struck up conversations with wounded soldiers. He came away angry to learn that U.S. financial restrictions were making it difficult for doctors there to obtain medicines and prosthetics.
He said he was impressed by evidence of religious freedom, including a chorus singing Christian songs in the majority-Muslim city of Homs.
Black and Jallo met Assad in the president’s palace office, where their discussion ranged from what they had seen on their trip to international politics to their respective families. The president’s wife joined them for much of the discussion, and Black said he was struck by their affectionate, “very Westernized relationship.”
“The media likes to refer to him as a monster and this and that,” Black said. “They very seldom depict him speaking, and the reason is, he is a very mild-spoken, rather genteel-sounding person, almost a little bit shy in nature.”
Assad praised Black not only for making a visit, but for doing so publicly, Jallo said.
“The president was talking to the senator, saying, ‘A lot of times people visit Syria and they don’t want to be in the news. You, senator, you speak your mind,’” Jallo said. “He was . . . saying, ‘You’re one of a kind.’ ”