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Ruff: Leaf panel took little heed of Star bid / January 23, 2014

With Virginia’s ex-governor and first lady facing criminal charges for their role in a gift-taking scandal, lawmakers are coming under increased pressure to tighten Virginia’s notoriously lax ethics laws.

The issue catapulted to the upper echelon of the General Assembly’s agenda this week with the announcement Tuesday of a 14-count federal indictment against Robert and Maureen McDonnell for abuse of office, wire fraud, corruption and making false statements in the Star Scientific scandal.

The McDonnells, who accepted in excess of $140,000 in money and gifts from Johnnie R. Williams Sr., former CEO of Star Scientific, could face decades in prison and millions in fines if convicted of the charges. The couple maintains their innocence, with the former governor calling a press conference Tuesday to condemn the charges as “unjust overreach” by federal prosecutors.

Among the claims made by the U.S. Department of Justice: the governor pressed university researchers to apply for a grant on Star’s behalf from the Virginia Tobacco Commission. According to prosecutors, McDonnell wanted researchers with the University of Virginia and VCU to front the study, which would have supported the considerable cost of staging pharmaceutical clinical trials on Star Scientific’s flagship product, Anatabloc, a dietary supplement that the company contends acts as an anti-inflammatory. The active ingredient in Anatabloc is found in the tobacco plant.

The prominence of Virginia Tobacco Commission in the thinking of McDonnell and Williams — the tale is laid out in full by prosecutors in their 43-page indictment — represents a new turn in the Star-McDonnell saga. A key question in the case is whether McDonnell’s actions represented a quid pro quo on behalf of a contributor, necessary to merit a conviction.

Clarksville state Sen. Frank Ruff, vice-chair of the Tobacco Commission and a political ally of McDonnell while he was in office, said yesterday that among members of the Tobacco Commission, the governor’s suppport for Star never surfaced as an issue.

Ruff said he recalled a vague discussion among Commission members about whether Williams’ company qualified for Tobacco Commission research and development funding. “It was clearly communicated to Williams that the R&D funds were for tobacco region projects only, and his project did not qualify,” said Ruff. He did not remember seeing or hearing about a formal application made for the grant — “It was more someone made a phone call and was given the answer.”

Ruff said he had no conversations with Williams or anyone on Williams’ behalf about the request. “That type of [inquiry] would have been handled by the staff.”

Calls made to Tim Pfohl, acting director of the Virginia Tobacco Commission, were not returned by press time.

The indictment indicates that no one at the University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, or Johns Hopkins University agreed to conduct clinical trials for Williams’ product or apply for funding for the trials through the Tobacco Commission.

Even as most members of Virginia’s legislature were muted on the subject of McDonnell, Ruff says the Senate Rules Committee is about to take up several different bills on ethics reform. At least four of the bills deal with limits on gifts. Others address reporting requirements.

Ruff said he was particularly interested in the bills that cover the reporting of gifts. “Right now we report one time in late December,” he said. The chances of misreporting a gift received at the start of the year are great, according to Ruff. On more than one occasion, he has had to call lobbyists to verify the value of a meal. For that reason, Ruff said he favors a 30-day cycle for reporting gifts.

One change Ruff said he was not inclined to support was to vest an existing ethics commission with the power to initiate investigations of alleged corruption. “That is what the state police are for,” said Ruff.

Whatever changes emerge from the legislature because of the McDonnell scandal, Ruff hopes they are “reasonable and measured.”

Tuesday’s indictment traces the history of the McDonnells’ cozy relationship with Williams, where money, vacations, clothes and other gifts were swapped for access and favors.

The Tobacco Commission grant, which never materialized after researchers balked, is described in the indictment as especially important to Star because of the high cost of staging clinical trials. The company hoped to gain FDA approval to market Anatabloc as effective in treating inflammation associated with diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions.

Star has since cut ties with Williams, the company’s founder, and left Virginia.

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Legislating ethics? Now that is the sad day in Virginia? It's pretty bad when the people who are supposed to have the highest ethical standards have to legislate a list of do's and do not's because they have no morals or integrity. Why don't you fart blossoms in the Virginia General Assembly just follow the laws you've already passed? Speak louder Mr. Ruff. There is no need for additional legislation when the existing laws are fully executed or the media actually grow spines and do their jobs. That's right. Instead of printing your bs list of local traffic offenders for all the gossip queens how about printing that annual list of political gifts on multiple runs.


To the politicians: Instead of trying to legislate morality, increase your term limits.
Just look at the last election for governor. You had a crook in office and two more crooks trying to take his place.
Why did the residents of Virginia have a governor under federal investigation, Republican candidate under federal investigation, and a Democrat candidate under federal investigation?

Comments Jersey anything's legal, as long as you don't get caught... "Tweeter & the Monkey Man" seems apropos, no?

100% agreed on term limits. While you're at it, get rid of the lifetime bennies and severely curtail (if not competely eliminate) lobbyists, PACs and campaign contributions. Take those steps and you'll see a gradual cleanup of the dirty business that is politics.

A real shame Vajenya politics has devolved into the mess it has become. Wonder if all those transplants coming in from other areas had anything to do with it? For that matter, who was our last Vajenya-born governor?

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