RICHMOND — Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the wealthy nutritional supplement maker at the center of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s gifts scandal, met with Virginia’s health secretary to pitch his product at the recommendation of the governor, according to an e-mail his assistant wrote the day of the November 2010 meeting.
“This email is to confirm a meeting between Jonnie Williams and Secretary Bill Hazel on Thursday, November 4th at 9:00 am,” Monica Block, McDonnell’s scheduler, wrote to Williams’s assistant in a message two days before he sat down with Hazel, the state’s secretary of health and human resources.
The e-mails, obtained by The Washington Post under the Freedom of Information Act, are the first indication that McDonnell (R) directly intervened on behalf of Williams, whose gifts of luxury items and five-figure payments and loans to the McDonnell family have triggered state and federal investigations.
Until now, only first lady Maureen McDonnell was known to have taken direct steps to promote Anatabloc, the nutritional supplement produced by Williams’s firm, Star Scientific. She had touted it at a Florida investors conference and arranged a product-launch party at the governor’s mansion, which the governor also attended.
In an interview Wednesday, Hazel said it was not immediately clear to him what Williams hoped to get out of the meeting. After it had already taken place, McDonnell directly asked him to talk to Williams.
“The governor said, ‘Will you talk to my wife’s friend?’ ” Hazel said. “And I said, ‘I have spoken with him. But I don’t know what he wants.’ ”
On the day of the November 2010 meeting with Hazel, Williams’s executive assistant said in an e-mail that McDonnell had suggested the get-together.
“Jonnie spoke with the Governor recently about a new product that Star Scientific, Inc. is developing that has the potential to save Virginia citizens money on health care,” wrote Jerri M. Fulkerson, Williams’s assistant. “The Governor told Jonnie he needs to speak to Dr. Hazel in reference to this.”
McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin said there was nothing unusual about the governor asking a state official to talk with someone.
“Whether it be on his radio shows, at events or anywhere he goes, Virginians are always asking the governor about issues or challenges or proposals that they may have,” Martin said. “We try to be responsive. Any matters that should be properly handled by a specific agency or secretariat are directed to their attention and handled as a matter of routine business.”
Hazel said he often meets with corporate leaders at the request of the governor’s office.
“They’re selling new ideas, and part of the job is to sift through and listen to it and try to make a decision about whether it is useful or not,” he said.
Williams gave $145,000 to assist the McDonnell family in 2011 and 2012. He provided $70,000 to a corporation owned by the governor and his sister and $50,000 as a loan to Maureen McDonnell. He also paid for the catering at the wedding of one of McDonnell’s daughters and gave a $10,000 gift to another daughter before her wedding.
At the meeting with the health secretary, the Star executive said his company had found a way to make tobacco, once a mainstay of the Virginia economy, healthy and profitable. His company was preparing to introduce Anatabloc, an anti-inflammatory supplement made from a chemical found in tobacco.
The product is billed as having promise for the treatment of Alzheimer’s and other ailments. Alzheimer’s experts have questioned those claims, as have shareholders, who allege in a lawsuit that Star exaggerated Anatabloc’s scientific promise.
Hazel said he concluded that the product was “not ready for prime time.”
“We took no action that would have likely benefited his company as a result,” Hazel said. “Unequivocally, I can say that.”
Hazel said Williams continued to periodically send him material about Star, but he was never sure what the executive was hoping to get from state government. After the governor made his direct request to “talk to my wife’s friend,” Hazel saw Williams at an event and asked.
“I said, ‘Jonnie, what is it that you want?’ ” Hazel recalled. “He said he wanted to get his product tested at U-Va. or MCV,” a reference to the Medical College of Virginia, now part of Virginia Commonwealth University. “And I said, ‘You go to them for that. You don’t need us for that.’ ”
Williams later arranged to make research grants to scientists at the two public medical schools, announcing them at an August 2011 mansion luncheon that doubled as a product-launch party for Anatabloc.
The event came the same month that Williams had a meeting with another state health official, this one at the behest of Maureen McDonnell. Molly Huffstetler, senior policy adviser to Hazel, met with him and the first lady Aug. 1, 2011. In an e-mail to Williams afterward, Huffstetler expressed professional skepticism but personal hopes for Anatabloc.
“As you know, it is necessary for us to make policy recommendations and decisions off sound data, [but] I am grateful that you are making strides to validate the incredible anecdotes and stories that result in your work,” Huffstetler wrote. “At times I found myself drifting to excitement thinking about my father, who suffers greatly from Ankylosing Spondylitis (severe form of arthritis). . . . It thrills me to think that within his lifetime there is a possible method to alleviating pain without costly side effects.”
Huffstetler did not return a call seeking comment.