RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Newly released emails show Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell attended an event at the Executive Mansion to promote a new product from a generous campaign donor despite concerns from top aides.
The emails, first obtained by The Washington Post through a Freedom of Information Act request and reported late Tuesday, don't reveal whether the aides expressed concern directly to the Republican governor, but show they questioned whether McDonnell should attend the 2011 luncheon to launch a dietary supplement made by Virginia-based Star Scientific. They also show efforts by the governor's staff to play down his appearance at the event.
"I don't understand this? we are doing an event with them?" McDonnell spokesman 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.
"Are we sure we can do something like this?" he asked a minute later, copying a number of other senior McDonnell aides.
Matt Conrad, McDonnell's deputy chief of staff and an attorney, quickly responded that he would run the question by the governor's chief of staff.
"You were exactly right to be suspicious," Conrad wrote to Martin.
Federal authorities are looking into the relationship between Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie Williams and the McDonnells. Star has donated more than $100,000 to McDonnell's campaigns, and Williams paid $15,000 for the catering at his daughter's 2011 wedding. The wedding gift and others were revealed by former Executive Mansion chef Todd Schneider, who is facing embezzlement charges for allegedly stealing from the mansion kitchen. He has alleged in court documents other wrongdoing by the governor's family.
On Wednesday, McDonnell defended his appearance at the event and said the emails were taken out of context.
"Listen, we had a small event designed for a Virginia company to be able to give grants to two medical research universities in Virginia, VCU and U.Va. That's why I went. I made an appearance for about 45 minutes. I welcomed people there. That was the purpose of the event," McDonnell told the Richmond Times-Dispatch after speaking at the Governor's Small Business Summit in Henrico County.
"We released (e-mails requested under the Freedom of Information Act), and people can read into them what they might, but that's why I went."
McDonnell has denied any wrongdoing, and said he provided no special treatment for Star Scientific or Williams. Martin declined to comment to The Associated Press.
The emails show the lunch at the mansion, which came three months after the wedding, caught McDonnell's advisers off guard. It came within a week of a rare 5.8-magnitute earthquake and Hurricane Irene, which killed four and caused widespread power outages, hitting the state.
At the urging of his wife, McDonnell squeezed in the appearance between a regular radio appearance in Washington and a press briefing alongside U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to discuss hurricane relief efforts.
"seriously, we are so hurricane centric here I don't have time to focus on this," Martin wrote to Sutherland in their initial exchange about the Star event.
Hours before the luncheon, Martin Kent, the governor's chief of staff and top aide, also appeared confused about the event and concerned about McDonnell's inclusion in a news release the company was sending out to promote the event.
"When is this planned? We need to discuss first," he wrote. "Is the Governor aware of his inclusion in this release?"
The day before the event, a Star official sent Sutherland a draft of the planned release that mentioned the McDonnells' attendance and quoted Williams thanking them "for their interest in our research and product development" and support of Star and its subsidiary, Rock Creek Pharmaceuticals.
"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."
McDonnell's aides worked to revise a news release, focusing on research grants offered by Star Scientific while playing down the support the McDonnells were providing to the company. Eventually, all direct references to the governor and first lady were removed.
The emails reported by The Post reveal it was the first lady who urged the governor to appear at the lunch, despite the multiple crises that demanded his attention.
While the event was described vaguely in mansion documents as a lunch for Virginia scientists, its true purpose was clear.
"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.
"That's the lunch MM is hosting for jonnie williams," the mansion director wrote back, in apparent reference to first lady Maureen McDonnell.
McDonnell's aides have said the event was not unusual for a governor and first lady who have made promoting state businesses a priority. They also have stressed that McDonnell was there to recognize the Virginia-based company for offering research grants to public universities, which were awarded at the lunch.
The event's $1,696 cost was paid by the governor's political action committee, rather than covered by allowable taxpayer expenses that pay for similar receptions and events at the Executive Mansion.
Information from: The Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com