AP Political Writer
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - A new report reveals that troubled nutritional supplements maker Star Scientific appealed to senior officials in Gov. Bob McDonnell's administration to place its anti-inflammatory product, Anatabloc, on a list of items available to state employees through their health plan, but the request was denied.
The information is in findings released Thursday by Democratic former Attorney General Tony Troy from his investigation into whether the company or its chief executive, McDonnell political donor and McDonnell family benefactor Jonnie R. Williams Sr., benefited monetarily from the state since McDonnell took office in January 2010.
It came the same day that newly released state government emails show that McDonnell had a hand in arranging an hour-long meeting for Williams on Nov. 4, 2010, with Virginia Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Hazel to pitch the benefits of Anatabloc, which lacks Food and Drug Administration approval.
It was the first of three meetings that Star Scientific or Williams had with members of McDonnell's cabinet or their representatives, none of which yielded financial gain, Troy's report concluded.
According to Troy's report and the emails, first obtained and reported by The Washington Post, the other high-level audiences the company had with senior state officials included an Aug. 30, 2011, Anatabloc promotional event at the Executive Mansion with first lady Maureen McDonnell and a meeting in 2012 between company salesman David Dean and Sara Wilson, the director of the Department of Human Resource management.
Maureen McDonnell had requested that Hazel attend the 2011 mansion event promoting Anatabloc to medical researchers at Virginia universities. Hazel said Thursday he did not attend, citing overriding obligations.
During the final meeting, Troy wrote, Dean "requested that the Commonwealth consider placing (Anatabloc) on a list of items available to state employees under the state health plan. Ms. Wilson denied the request."
Troy was appointed to look into McDonnell's relationship with Williams and Star Scientific and thousands of dollars given to Virginia's first family in personal gifts after the current attorney general, Republican Ken Cuccinelli, recused his office from the investigation citing conflicts of interest.
Cuccinelli took more than $18,000 in gifts from Williams and his company, including $6,770 worth of food supplements and a $3,000 family summer vacation at Williams' posh waterside villa at Smith Mountain Lake. Cuccinelli initially failed to disclose some gifts from Williams on his required annual statements of economic interest, but amended his reports in April from 2009 through 2012 to add the lake vacation, a $15,000 catered Thanksgiving dinner and other items.
Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney Mike Herring said in a report Thursday morning that he found no evidence that Cuccinelli's lapses in disclosing Williams' gifts violated state ethics laws.
McDonnell, however, has not disclosed any of the thousands of dollars in gifts from Williams, including a $15,000 check to McDonnell's daughter Cailin to defray catering bills for her 2011 Executive Mansion wedding reception. But federal and state criminal investigations are examining whether McDonnell used his office to benefit Star Scientific in light of the gifts.
The governor, who has hired a private team of attorneys, has categorically denied providing any government benefit for Williams, and Troy's report concurs. McDonnell defends his decision not to list the personal gifts on his required annual statement of economic interest reports because state law compels only officeholders, not family members, to disclose gifts. Virginia places no limit on the value of gifts officeholders receive.
Williams' executive assistant at Star Scientific wrote in emails to McDonnell's former scheduler and Health Secretary Bill Hazel's top aide that "The Governor told Jonnie he needs to speak to Dr. Hazel" regarding Anatabloc.
The correspondence establishes McDonnell's awareness of Williams' desires and suggests some level of involvement in making the meeting with Hazel happen.
Hazel, in an Associated Press interview Thursday, recalled that in the meeting, Williams promoted Anatabloc as a way to reduce Virginians' health care costs, benefit the state's tobacco industry and possibly combat Alzheimer's disease. Hazel, a respected Washington-area orthopedic surgeon, said he was skeptical about the product before meeting with Williams and even more dubious after listening to some of Williams' claims.
"I kept asking myself 'If this stuff is really that good, then why haven't I heard of it and why haven't I heard of Star Scientific,'" Hazel said. "When things seem too good to be true, they probably are."
Hazel said McDonnell never pressured him to give Williams an audience, and that it's common for McDonnell to recommend that individuals or organizations with a wide range of interests meet and discuss them with specific members of his cabinet. Hazel said he was aware, however, that Williams was close to the governor and the first lady.
"What was different about Jonnie is he's a personal friend, not just some campaign donor," Hazel said. "Do you give him more time and attention because of that? I'm not sure that's true, but you're aware of it."
Williams got nothing from the November 2010 meeting in the same Capitol Square building as the governor's office suites, Hazel said. He said he wasn't even sure afterward what Williams wanted.