Category Archives: Government workers and pensions

Former Massey Coal Chief Indicted

DonBlankenshipBy Peter Galuszka

The indictment today in Charleston, W.Va. of coal baron Donald L. Blankenship, the former head of the notorious Massey Energy Company, for violating federal mine safety and securities laws, has been long awaited, especially by the families of the 29 miners who died on April 5, 2010 in a huge explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va.

It was the worst coal mine disaster in this country in 40 years. It topped off a wild run by Blankenship, who thought he had political potential and spoke for the Appalachian coalfields while dodging safety violations and blowing away mountains in horrific surface mining practices.

He was a poster man for the view, popular among this country’s business elite, that cost cutting and productivity are sacrosanct, human lives are cheap and environmental concerns such as climate change are mere diversions from the country’s true goals. At one point he literally wrapped himself up in the American flag to push his ideas.

A federal grand jury today turned those arguments on their heads. The four charges accuse Blankenship of conspiracy in blunting the numerous federal safety violations that lead to the catastrophic disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine.

For several years leading up to that fateful day, Blankenship allegedly connived to ignore concerns that the mine had broken equipment and excessively high levels of highly inflammable coal dust. He also is accused of keeping federal mine inspectors from doing their jobs.

The grand jury also claims that Blankenship violated federal securities laws by giving investors misleading information about Massey stock.

Blankenship was a huge celebrity in the Appalachian coalfields. Tying himself to a reactionary ideal of doing what he thought was best for America, he spent a million dollars at what was an anti-Labor Day celebration in West Virginia in 2009. He wore a costume formed from an American flag and hired testosterone-infused country music stars Hank Williams Jr. and Ted Nugent to entertain his crowd.

The irony was that it was a holiday to celebrate labor unions while Blankenship and his firm were notorious for union-busting. He also had a habit of taking the chief justice of the West Virginia supreme court on vacation on the French Riviera.

Another irony is that Blankenship, like much of the U.S. coal industry, promotes the propaganda that there is a “War on Coal” and that coal is essential to “keeping our lights on.” Never mind that the free market and the flow of natural gas from hydraulic fracturing drilling from the very same area, not the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, are what is really hurting the Appalachian steam coal market.

The coal mined at Upper Big Branch, however, had nothing to do with power generation. It was metallurgical coal that was exported to make steel in markets such as China. At the time of Upper Big Branch, China’s steel market was hot and met coal prices were going through the roof.

The indictment reads that the group of mines associated with Upper Big Branch “generated revenues of approximately $331 million, which represented 14 percent of Massey’s approximately $2.3 billion in in revenue.” Obviously, it was in Blankenship’s interest to keep the steel-making coal flowing.

In that process, according to the indictments, Blankenship oversaw efforts to cut corners, dodge safety issues and keep miners on edge. They are rich in detail about poor ventilation; flawed water sprays to keep explosive coal dust down and warning when federal coal inspectors were on the prowl.

After he was forced to resign from Massey Energy with an over-sized golden parachute, Blankenship kept quiet for a couple for of years. Recently he came back on the scene with a self-made documentary just on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch disaster. The movie was so tasteless that even Joe Manchin, a U.S. Senator from West Virginia who was quoted in the film, disassociated himself from it. Families of the dead mines were appalled.

The long-in-coming indictments illustrate the problems of coal as an energy and steel source and just how its issues have been ignored in the Appalachians for about 150 years. In the past, huge mine disasters, such as the 1968 blast at Farmington W.Va. that killed 78, sparked real safety reform.

Not so after Upper Big Branch. Pro-coal Republicans in Congress have blocked bills to toughen rules. This is a reason why the federal indictments are so important. They show that leading a culture of safety laxity will no longer be tolerated.

It may be curious that Blankenship’s indictments come just after President Barack Obama has just agreed to a turning point treaty with heavy polluter China to cut carbon emissions. But they should give some closure to long-festering problems in a part of the United States where industrial death and destruction are considered business as usual.

Kudos: U.S.-China Climate Pact

Shanghai: Soot City

Shanghai: Soot City

By Peter Galuszka

President Barack Obama’s trailblazing pact with Chinese leader Xi Jinping to limit greenhouse gas emissions through 2025 is welcome news and could do much to reduce carbon dioxide emissions since the two countries are responsible for about 40 percent of the globe’s total.

China is an economic powerhouse so energy hungry it builds a new coal-fired generating plant about every eight to 10 days. Its leaders have pledged to cap  carbon emissions by 2030 or earlier.

Obama announced a plan to cut U.S. emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. This is a bigger cut than the 17 percent reduction by 2020 that he had announced earlier.

The agreement, reached in Beijing, is most welcome for the obvious reason that it would make a huge contribution to reducing greenhouse gases. It also undercuts the arguments by the fossil fuel industry, some utilities and their drum beaters that any steps the U.S. takes in cutting carbon pollution are pointless since China (or other Asian countries) will keep polluting anyway.

The arguments are crucial since Virginia’s Big Energy industry and the staff of the State Corporation Commission are attacking plans by the EPA to greatly reduce carbon.

Consider this gem of wisdom from another correspondent on this blog: “Virginia could revert to stone-age levels of zero greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow, and the savings would offset the increase in CO2 from coal-fired power plants built in India and China in a year! (OK, maybe not a year, but over a very short period of time.)”

Sadly, this kind of mentality is regressive and, with the new Washington-Beijing pact, is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

One thing many American commentators don’t seem to realize is that China isn’t necessarily a primitive business juggernaut stomping on any rational plan to check pollution. Beijing and Shanghai have some of the highest rates of air pollution in the world and its leadership, especially engineers and policy makers capable of understanding how technology can help them, knows they just can’t continue as before.

Three years ago, I visited both cities to research a book on the coal industry (newly out in an updated paperback, by the way, see below). I also went to Ulanbatour, the capital of coal-driven Mongolia where the air was so bad, I felt delirious within hours after arrival and by the next morning I showed signs of pulmonary illness.

The promise for changing things seems to money and the system.

In the U.S., we have a regulatory oversight apparatus over energy generation. This is reasonable because it prevents electric utilities from using their monopoly power to stick customers with high rates. But the system is flawed because: (1) it too often favors big utilities over average consumers and; (2) it is rigged to prevent new, experimental and possibly transformative technologies that very well could allow the use of dirty and dangerous but still cheap coal.

In the latter case, the thinking seems to be to go for ephemeral cost benefits (like using natural gas) without having any long-term strategy that actually might save lots more money through better health and more efficient, less-polluting energy.

In several cases, regulators nixed pilot plants that burn coal but use special new ways of doing so that capture a lot of carbon either in a chemical process involving ammonia or by stripping off the carbon emission from the pollution stream and sequestering them safely away. The plants cost big money. They are much cheaper to do as greenfield sites but regulators are more inclined to prevent them in favor with the soup d’jour of power that happens to be cheapest at the moment, in our current case, natural gas. Continue reading

The Wacky World of Private Space Firms

 Antares-Explosion-VideoBy Peter Galuszka

The spectacular explosion on the evening of Oct. 28 of an Orbital Sciences Corporation rocket at Wallops Island on the Eastern Shore of Virginia raises safety questions about the rush to commercialize space launches.

The Antares rocket with a Cygnus cargo shipment had been bound for the International Space Station but the rocket burst into flames and exploded six seconds after liftoff. The blast from the sandy barrier island was powerful enough to shatter glass windows at nearby business, according to news reports.

Dulles-based Orbital Sciences is one of several private firms competing for business from the federal government as part of a plan to reduce costs for the Air Force and budget-strapped NASA. Orbital, Blue Origin, SpaceX and United Launch Alliance made up of space veterans Boeing and Lockheed Martin are all vying for contracts by aggressively touting lower prices.

It can get nasty. SpaceX’s iconoclastic leader Elon Musk famously sued the Air Force to break ULA’s monopoly on military satellite launches. He’s also sued to squelch concerns about his rockets’ safety. His firm, as are some others, is pushing manned flights to the space station, space tourism or perhaps missions to Mars or other outer space locations.

Orbital picked up a $1.9 billion contract from NASA in 2008 to deliver cargo to the space station from 2011 to 2015 using its Antares rockets made at a facility in Dulles. Using Wallops Island for its launch site, Orbital successfully launched two demonstration shots in 2013 and two cargo rockets early this year.

According to The Washington Post, the engines used on the Antares rocket were modified, decades-old, Soviet models that the Kremlin stopped using in the early 1970s because they were prone to explode. Orbital picked up some, apparently cheaply, because it was having trouble locating rocket engines from other sources powerful enough to lift its cargoes.

It isn’t known yet what exactly went wrong with the launch this week, but the Russian-made engines are certainly going to be studied. This raises questions about how much cost-cutting and cheap buying the private firms actually do to keep their costs down and maintain their competitiveness.

Musk of SpaceX has criticized using decades-old technology, but he has been accused of pushing cost cuts too hard. He’s been sued by employees who claimed he made them work 60-hour weeks. Obviously, tired workers are prone to make mistakes.

Up until now, politicians and economic development officials in Virginia and Maryland have proudly touted the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport as a sexy, futuristic display of how up with the times they are.

When SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket in May 2012 from Cape Canaveral, then Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton told Virginia Business magazine, “Obviously a lot of people focus on SpaceX. But Virginia now is pushing its own plan to grab a share of the commercial space market.” He unwittingly added: “Do you realize that in the fall (of 2012), it’s not going to be SpaceX you’ll be talking about. It’s going to be Orbital.” Missed it by two years. Ouch.

Other officials have tried to make Wallops Island a tourism destination. The Web site of the Norfolk-based Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority pitches the draw for visitors. “The people on the Eastern Shore are wonderful,” writes Zig Leszczynski, the authority’s deputy executive director. “Chincoteague is a great area, so when folks come out to see the launches, you can also enjoy a kayak trip and some good seafood.”

NASA has had its share of disasters, including the 1986 loss of the Challenger Space Shuttle and then the loss of the Columbia Space Shuttle in 2003, killing a total of 14 astronauts. But as private firms accelerate their space activities, there are concerns that they might not have the rigorous safety testing that government launches have had.

On Aug. 25, a three-engine Falcon 9 rocket launched by SpaceX blew itself up seconds after leaving its Texas launch pad. Other problems have included “several anomalies” that occurred in the company’s civilian space flights” including having not enough fuel during a launch and a fire on an engine structure. The Air Force is investigating.

Private companies are still racking up deals. Blue Origin, a firm started by Jeff Bezos, the Amazon chief and owner of The Washington Post, got a deal last month to help supply rocket engines for ULA, which had been depending solely on Russian-built engines to launch its heavy rockets. Their continued use is in jeopardy because of current political tensions with Russia and Ukraine.

So what used to be an A-OK world of slim, professional astronauts and nerdy guys with pocket holders for their pens has turned into something of a free-for-all. It can be seen from the comfort of your kayak in an Eastern Shore salt marsh.

Good Ruling on Congressional Redistricting

The 3rd Congressional District

The 3rd Congressional District

 By Peter Galuszka

A panel of federal judges in Richmond has scrambled the carefully laid plans of legislators, most of them Republicans, to pack African-American voters into one congressional district to give the GOP an advantage in some of the  state’s 10 other districts.

The panel of U.S. District Court judges decreed that the General Assembly’s 2012 decision to draw new boundaries in the 3rd Congressional District stretching from Richmond east to several Tidewater cities was in error.

The state has until next April to redraw the 3rd District, now represented by U.S. Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, a Democrat who is the state’s only African American congressman.

That will undoubtedly impact other districts represented by white Republicans including U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes of the 4th District, U.S. Rep. Scott Ringell of the 2nd District and Robert J. Whitman of the 1st District.

This is indeed an interesting start to what could end up being a messy line of dominoes falling. And it shows just how wrongheaded politicians are when they tinker with voters by race by packing people of color in one district so races in other ones will be decidedly less competitive.

It also raises other questions about ways the GOP is doing its best to minimize the influence of young and non-white voters through the use of voter identification cards and other means.

To get an idea of how nuts the 3rd District is, look at a map. Moving west to east, it goes through eastern Richmond and Henrico County, swoops down the James River peninsula, and hop-scotches parts of the 1st District to include heavily African-American parts of Newport News and Hampton. Then, the District crosses Hampton Roads to include heavily black parts of Norfolk and Portsmouth and then heads west again to take also-black parts of counties on the south shore of the James River.

Scott is Virginia's only African-American Congressman

Scott is Virginia’s only African-American Congressman

This scheme packs African-Americans into one unit while mostly-white parts of Virginia Beach, Norfolk and Chesapeake and Williamsburg are covered in the 1st, 2nd and 4th Districts, all represented by white Republicans. Mostly-black Petersburg, a city of 32,000, was taken out of the 4th District and put in Scott’s 3rd District, giving white Republican Forbes of the 4th District an advantage.

Democrats such as State Sen. Mamie Locke have long complained about schemes that hop-scotch geography to give white candidates an advantage. They want tighter, more contiguous districts.

One can tell just how serious this is when Del. William Howell, the Republican House Speaker, had nothing to say about the court’s decision. He will have to somehow help navigate drawing up new district plans.

He’s really under the gun. He can’t just set up a road block as he did with Medicaid expansion and tell Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe where to stick it. If Howell shuns a bipartisan effort, then McAuliffe would likely veto whatever he and his colleagues come up with. Then it would go back to the judges to decide.

It is in Virginia’s interest to make sure all of its districts and not just ones for Congress are shaped to allow for more competitive races. Very few elections for state positions are contested. This, in turn, ruins bipartisan consensus and makes the primaries, usually for Republicans, more consequential than the races themselves. The results are either legislative gridlock or laws that have little to do with the wishes of many voters.

Another issue that needs to be addressed is what Mother Jones magazine has identified as a large-scale, national effort, mostly by Republicans, to make it harder for minorities and young people to vote. They tend to vote Democratic and helped Barack Obama win the presidency in 2008 and in 2012.

Since 2012, 22 states have passed new voting restriction laws that shorten voting hours or require a government-issued identification card or proof of citizenship. North Carolina has perhaps the worst of such measures. There are shorter hours and no more same-day registration to vote. It even gives the nod to “poll watchers” who can stand around outside polling places and hassle voters about their eligibility to vote. I guess that means if you look black or Hispanic or youthful, you get rousted by vigilantes. The odd part is that states, including Virginia, went for more restriction when there wasn’t much evidence of voter fraud.

To be sure, Virginia’s redistricting efforts were begun by federal initiatives such as the Voting Rights Act which gave Bobby Scott an opportunity to win as an African-American in the early 1990s. The Voting Rights Act was meant to ensure that minorities were represented but that concept has been cynically morphed into a Frankenstein that keeps minorities “packed” in a district or districts so whites maintain their hold on most of the other districts in a state.

The court’s decision is most welcome. Let’s hope it grows into a movement to return democratic competition and ends undemocratic restrictions like demanding extra and unnecessary pieces of identification for qualified voters.

 

Et Tu, McAuliffe?

mcauliffeBy Peter Galuszka

Sure, parents want to help their children but in the case of former State Sen. Phillip Puckett, it is getting ridiculous.

And the latest disclosure in this morning’s Washington Post makes the Terry McAuliffe administration look just as sleazy as their Republican counterparts.

Puckett, of course was a Democratic senator who held a key vote when McAuliffe, also a Democrat, was desperately trying to get past a GOP road block in the General Assembly to somehow expand Medicaid health coverage to some of the 40,000 low income people who might be eligible.

GOPers knew that Puckett’s daughter, Martha Puckett Ketron, wanted a job as a District Court judge but could not be appointed as long as she had a relative in the Senate. So, they pitched a deal where Puckett would resign on the eve of the key Medicaid vote, throwing the decision the Republican way.

In exchange, Puckett might get a six figure job with the infamous Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, thanks, in part to the influence of the powerful Terry and Jerry Kilgore brothers. That would clear the way for Puckett’s daughter’s judgeship.

It all came out and the FBI is probing.

Now, it turns out that, Paul Reagan, McAuliffe’s chief of staff, left a curious voice mail on Puckett’s phone on the eve of the vote. It suggested that Puckett’s daughter could get some kind of high profile state job if he stayed in the Senate and voted McAuliffe’s way.

So much for McAuliffe taking the high ground on ethics reform following the spectacular corruption conviction of former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell.

Bob McDonnell’s Big Decision

 smith_mountain_lake2By Peter Galuszka

It was a gubernatorial quandary only Virginia could have .

In the summer of 2011, former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell was ready to take a few days off. He and his family had been going to Smith Mountain Lake, a popular destination near Roanoke with lots of golf courses and seven-figure lakeside homes.

At his corruption trial this week, McDonnell testified that his summer getaway had been bankrolled by Delta Star, a company with a big factory in Lynchburg that makes portable industrial electrical gear. The firm had put him up at one of their lakefront houses for $2,474 in 2010, according the VPAP, which runs a data base about this kind of thing.

Summer 2011 had proved a big problem, however. His wife, Maureen, had become fast friends with Jonnie R. Williams a rich Goochland County businessman. Williams had given Ms. McDonnell a $50,000 check and also paid $15,000 for her daughter’s wedding luncheon that June. She had traveled with Williams helping promote Anatabloc, Williams dietary supplement that has since been pulled off the market by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The problem was — whose million-dollar-plus house would the McDonnells use? Williams very much wanted the McDonnells to stay at his sprawling domicile on the tip of a peninsula. Delta Star wanted the McDonnells to stay at their place.

What to do? They split it. The McDonnells stayed at Williams’ house for a getaway valued at $2,268 value according to VPAP. He also laid on a Ferrari that the governor could enjoy driving on the way home.

Delta Star made sure the family was entertained and fed. They provided the family with their very own boat to cruise the lake and catered meals – a $1,892 value for a long weekend.

Delta Star’s feelings didn’t seem to be hurt since they laid on another entertainment gift worth $10,182 in 2012.

And while we’re talking lakeside homes, guess who else also stayed at Williams’ place? Former Atty. Gen. Kenneth Cuccinelli, that’s who – to the tune of $3,000 in 2011. We haven’t heard much recently from the former firebrand, hard right politician but he is on the witness list.

And so it goes. And, by the way, getting vacation favors is very common. Check out former Gov. Tim Kaine’s expensive sojourn on the turquoise blue waters of the Caribbean Sea.

It’s not the only way Virginia’s extremely lax ethics laws work.

If you use your PAC, you have an automatic teller machine. For instance, Tim Hugo of Fairfax, the third-ranking Republican in Virginia’s House of Delegates, expensed nearly $30,000 for travel and food and $9,400 for his cellphone over an 18-month period. As a spokeswoman for the State Board of Elections told The Washington Post’s Laura Vozzella in 2013, “If they wanted to use the money to send their kids to college, they could probably do that.”

Maureen McDonnell and Sexism

maureen_and_bob(1)By Peter Galuszka

Sitting for hours listening to former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell testify in his federal corruption trial makes one wonder exactly what his values are, especially as they relate to women.

His entire legal strategy is to “Throw Maureen Under the Bus” – namely his lawyers and those of his co-defendant wife Maureen are portraying Ms. McDonnell as a “basket case” who set up a lot of funny meetings with snake oil salesman Jonnie Ray Williams Sr., accepted expensive gifts from him with promptly telling her husband, and communicated with him 1,200 times in about a year and a half (one day it was 52 text messages.)

She is bad and deceptive. He is good and didn’t know much about her messy friendship with Williams. She is guilty. He is innocent (or so it goes).

Gov. Bob, helmet hair perfect as usual, took the jurors through a horrible litany of his long-decaying marriage to college sweetheart Maureen. While she was screaming and intimidating her staff, he was slogging through “the business of governing” for endless hours every day.

When she approached Ann Romney, wife of Republican presidential candidate on the campaign trail in 2012 and offered the woman who suffers from MS some “Anatabloc,” Williams’ miracle pills, Bob overhead it and was “embarrassed.”

There is something deeply disturbing, however, about McDonnell and his attitudes. He seems to have come from a bygone era when men worked long hours, held major responsibilities and answered to the most important thing in their lives – their overweening ambition.

The husband was ordained by God to do great things, be a Boy Scout, and write his name in history books. His wife was to stay barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen knitting socks or selling silly vials of creams.

McDonnell has since disowned this little passage he wrote at Regent University (Pat Robertson’s school) back in 1989 when he was a graduate student, but it seems strangely relevant. He tried to create some kind of conservative, faith-based government paradigm that would cut taxes, open charter schools and the like. He wrote:

“Further expenditures would be used to subsidize a dynamic new trend of working women and feminists that is ultimately detrimental to the family by entrenching status-quo of nonparental primary nurture of children.” The kicker is his view that feminism is one of the “real enemies of the traditional family.”

Well, a hell of lot of good that thinking has done since he has steadily, deliberately humiliated his wife in a bid to avoid jail time. A parade of defense witnesses, mostly McDonnell cronies, have humiliated Ms. McDonnell as a grabby, irrational, fashion-mad bimbo who just didn’t get it when Bob patiently told her that the stock she held in Star Scientific, Williams’ firm, had lost half their value and were a bad investment.

There are other giveaways that paint McDonnell as a self-important, entitled, superior little prig. Maureen had an apparently successful home-based business selling nutraceuticals like face creams. The Bob that may have sounded so pointlessly “womanish” but it is a big business. When he ran for statewide offices, he told Maureen to nix the biz.

Now wait a minute. Why should he tell his wife that she can’t run her own business she built up because his mission as a conservative political savior is just too important? Why does he get to decide?

One reason has roots in a kind of mid- 20th century philosophy that one used to see in black and white movies and television shows. There has been a deluge of testimony about the Virginia suburbs of DC roots of the McDonnells. Lots of military, conservative, family values, do-goodism, ticket punching (making colonel or the appropriate GS level position) having some silly affection for the Redskins or golf club bags with your school logo and so on. But the most obnoxious attitude is that the self-pride that one is doing something very important for his country and fellow citizens.

If you are male, you get to wear this cloak. If you are a woman, your first and foremost goal is to mind the kids and support your man and be a handmaiden to HIS career and ambitions. Watch the 1950s “Strategic Air Command” film” with Jimmy Stewart as a ballplayer pilot and his dutiful wife June Allyson. He makes the big decisions and flies the big bombers. She’s always waiting at the air base fence for him to come home so she can cook him fried eggs.

But McDonnell has a bigger problem than just this over-the-top sense of duty. By his own testimony, McDonnell is seriously addicted to political ambition. It is his oxycodone. His heroin. He gets a real kick by planning the next stage (vice president? president?) Maureen is left by herself and her screaming fits. Bob just tunes her out and spends as much time traveling and in his office as he can.

As he testified, McDonnell got a buzz from being a state legate and an even bigger buzz by running for attorney general and governor. One woman who seemed to be cheering him every step of the way was Janet Kelly, who ended up being Secretary of the Commonwealth when he became governor. She testified that when he wanted her for that spot, she told him flat out she could not work with Maureen. She didn’t.

Family values, anyone?

Is Pretentious Richmond Really Hooterville?

green acresBy Peter Galuszka

Is Richmond really Hooterville?

By golly gosh, that’s the impression that one might come away with after 14 days of testimony at the corruption trial of former Gov. Robert F. and Ms. Maureen McDonnell.

Pretentious Richmond likes to see itself as a genteel and sophisticated historic relic with a Southern snob appeal rivaling Charleston, S.C.; an architecture and culture that worship the English (although the best of the Brit lot didn’t always end up here); and basic unfriendliness. At the upper levels, people whose can’t trace their families back several generations are not really welcome unless they have lots of money, which bespeaks Richmond’s more honest background as a service and industrial town.

“RVA” as its promoters like to now brand it, is supposed to be a tourism and great restaurant destination with professional service (that’s a laugh). Residents are supposed to enjoy a high life that goes well beyond a burg of 1.25 million trapped in the distant shadows of Washington, D.C.

To be sure, some younger Richmonders are thankfully well beyond these handcuffs. So are a passel of “come heres” who have brought the town more sophistication from Germany, Japan or Croatia or even from  even from such Deeper South spots as Charlotte and Atlanta — Charleston being little more than a tourist trap and shipping center. Richmond does have nice museums, art galleries and a popular baseball team that they’re trying to ruin by moving it to a congested, politically orchestrated spot.

But you’ve got to wonder. In recent trial testimony, the story was told of Jonnie R. Williams, star witness for the prosecution, who tried to court (among many others) Dr. George Vetrovec, a researcher at Virginia Commonwealth University. Williams was trying to get VCU’s and the University of Virginia’s imprimatur on Anatabloc, Williams’ over-the-counter anti-inflammatory so questionable it has just been pulled off the shelves nationally. The former used car salesman also dotted doctors’ meetings with props from Johns Hopkins University as if they were supposed to impress the supposedly lower-tier Virginia folks. To their credit, many state officials didn’t bite.

Dr. Vetrovec thought he was going with Williams to the Executive Mansion to sample some of Ms. McDonnell’s cookies which are supposed to be delicious. Instead, it was a reception for dynamite director Steve Spielberg, in town to film “Lincoln” in October 2011.

Wowie! Zowie! THE Spielberg! “This is the most unusual event you can ever imagine,” the doctor said. As readers can see from the link, Vetrovec’s statements were reprinted in the London media, giving Richmond a somewhat laughable reputation.

Huh? Where the hell are we? “Green Acres?” Go to any city that Richmond aspires to be like Atlanta, D.C. or New York. No one would go nutty over Spielberg-spotting. Movie stars and directors are like so, so what? But Richmond was mad about “Lincoln” and was chock-a-block with all the local stand-ins they hired. You couldn’t walk downtown without tripping over the beard of an extra that he might have waxed with bacon grease to give it an 1865 look and aroma.

My own sister was an extra in “The Exorcist” in Georgetown back in the 70s but she never regarded it as the high point of her life. It was more an amusing anecdote to be shared over a glass of wine. When I worked in Moscow in friendlier times in the 1990s, I was driving downtown near a hotel. I was amazed since it was covered in bullet holes – even more so that I didn’t hear the shots although I lived nearby. Turned out it had been a prop for a Val Kilmer movie and they hadn’t cleaned it up yet. Muscovites did not gush. They walked silently by.

So are Richmonders really that impressionable? Is it a deep sense of being second rate? Is it an over-sized turnip truck? Why were the McDonnells so impressed with Williams’ Ferrari that they had 25 pictures of them with it? Had they never seen a Ferrari before?

There’s the $5,000 bottle of Louis XIII cognac in New York’s Four Seasons hotel. Later, Williams spent something like $36,000 for a four-day getaway for six people including the McDonnells at a posh Cape Cod resort. The six tippled 16 glasses of Louis XIII for something like $125 a snifter. Their dinner menus included lobster, duck, steak and fish – all on Williams’ tab.

And on it goes – the Rolex, Louis Vuitton, Oscar de la Renta, the golf clubs and so on.

The obvious corruption is worrisome and hopefully the  federal (not state)  court will address it.The extra blow is that Richmond doesn’t just look bad, it looks ridiculous. It seems like a Third World capital, perhaps Jakarta, where traders and investors used to bring special goodies for Mrs. Suharto (a.k.a. “Mrs. Ten Percent.”)

Will Richmond be regarded as too simple to handle business, culture, science and education in  a much more interconnected and increasingly sophisticated world? Will foreign business scouts show up at RIC with suitcases full of cash, or maybe fake gold trinkets? Could it be that the McDonnells have it right — Richmond is really Hicksville after all?

State Workers: GiftGate’s Unsung Heroes

mcD.pixBy Peter Galuszka

The McDonnell corruption trial, now going into its third week, is an enormously sad and tawdry affair bringing shame on the defendants and the prosecution’s key witness, businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr.

Yet there are heroes — state employees. A number of them have testified over the past week that they sensed that something stunk with the way Williams, who has no formal science training, relentlessly pushed his questionable product and maneuvered to get the state’s prestigious universities to put their imprimatur on it so it could move from being a low margin neutraceutical to a real and profitable pharmaceutical.

“Perhaps the only gratifying aspect of the trial last week was the extraordinary professionalism of the Virginia bureaucracy,” Richmond political analyst Bob Holsworth told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

He’s spot on. One reads so many attacks on government workers among more conservative writers who see public workers as slow-minded except when it comes to tying business up with regulations — the theory goes. Private workers build wealth and create products. Public workers live off the taxpayer’s dime and should be fired in droves, one theory goes.

Not true in the McDonnells’ case. Tae Health and Human Resources Secretary William Hazel. Former Gov. Bob McDonnell pushed him, including with late night-emails, to set up meetings to promote Williams and his Anatabloc product.

Hazel responded with not only brave professionalism but common sense. “I wouldn’t put the stuff in my mouth,” he testified. When Williams gave him samples, he didn’t put it down in his disclosure forms because “I didn’t think it had any value.”

Hazel is a serious doctor of medicine, honed by science and reason. Someone like that just isn’t going to be swayed by a business hustler with a private jet, Ferrari, various vacation homes and a gigantic credit limits on his cards.

Other heroes and heroines appear to be some of McDonnell’s staff such as Sarah Scarbrough, former director of the Executive Mansion, who worried about Maureen McDonnell’s “mental capacity” and campaign manager Phil Cox who was upset when Ms. McDonnell pushed Williams’ little pills on Ann Romney, the wife of the GOP’s 2012 presidential candidate.

Somewhat less impressive are other witnesses from Star Scientific, Williams’ former company. Former Chairman Paul Perito claimed that he had no idea just what Williams had given the McDonnells and how deeply he had gotten into  the muck with them.

Last summer, I was spending a lot of time reporting on Star and admit that I could never figure it out. Williams’ seemed like money-losing huckster — someone so over-the-top that he could be easily seen through. Yet the other officers and directors at Star, like Harvard-trained Perito, seemed solid.

Perito nixed McDonnell’s campaign to become a paid board member of Star (she’s hardly qualified) and he seemed stunned when Williams’ told him in 2013 that he’d been interviewed by the FBI and state police. It raises questions about Perito that he didn’t know of all of this much sooner.

Still, many Virginia workers caught up in this farcical mess deserve credit for sticking to their guns and professionalism. Hats off to them.

Cantor’s Self-Serving Special Election Scheme

cantor By Peter Galuszka

It looks like a small group of the Virginia Republicans elite has once again hatched a plot behind closed doors to manipulate elected politics without input from voters.

U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, the victim of a surprising defeat in a June 10 Republican primary, has come up with a self-serving scheme to resign Aug.18 and finagle a special election Nov. 4 to pick his successor. The special election would be held along with a regularly scheduled one.

Normally, opposing candidates Republican David Brat and Democrat Jack Trammel, would routinely face election that day. With Cantor’s proposal, the winner of the special election for the 7th Congressional District seat would be able to take office immediately, instead of having to wait for usual matriculation of the other 434 Congressmen in January.

This is a back-door, move-to-the-head-of-the-class scheme. Presumably, the winner would be Brat who, taking office in November, would be placed ahead of other Congressional newcomers when it comes to coveted committee assignments. Good for the GOP. Bad for Democrats.

For Cantor, of course, it is a Big Win. Since his unexpected and earth-shaking defeat, the 51-year-old has been seen at such posh places as the Hampton is on the tip of Long Island schmoozing with Big Money. Cantor does have an advanced degree from Columbia in real estate finance and his wife was once a New York securities trader. Big Finance, along with Big Pharma and Big Managed Care, has been one of his biggest sources of election funds.

Larry Sabato, the University of Virginia political expert, by turns thought Cantor’s idea “generous” but also noted ”it’s highly probable that he has a deal in the works for his post-Congress life, and he’s eager to get it started,” Sabato was quoted as saying.

As might have been expected, Cantor made his announcement in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, his lapdog newspaper. Editors gushed that his announcement “features an extraordinary column by an extraordinary human being.”

It shows extraordinary cluelessness as well. Cantor, the Main Street Republicans and the TD’s club of Richmond elites don’t seem to understand that it is their very exclusivity that helped do Cantor in and give an upstart like Brat the edge.

Consider a cover story package that I co-wrote in the Chesterfield Monthly, one of the Richmond area’s up-and-coming publications. I found that it wasn’t just that Cantor ignored his district that did him in – it was a putsch by some rather annoyed Libertarians of the traditional ilk and small government moderates plus the Tea Party.

Leaders of the “malcontents” were lawyer Patrick McSweeney and Tea Party leader Jamie Radtke who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 2012. In the “Bull Elephant” blog, Radtke compared Cantor and his Confederates as “mobsters” running around and snuffing out dissent among local conservatives.

Brat himself was ultra pissed off a couple of years back when he wanted to get the Henrico County GOP nod to run and replace Bill Janis. But, functioning as the old Soviet Politburo might have, a tiny group of Republican elders decided that the candidate would be Peter Farrell, the young son of utility powerhouse chieftain Tom Farrell of Dominion. In other words, it wasn’t exactly a day for waving the stars and stripes of Democracy. It was pure, Big League, Big Business inside diktat that could have taken place behind the crenelated walls of the Kremlin.

They didn’t give Brat a chance,”analyst Bob Holsworth told me. “That gave Brat the interest in taking on this Don Quixote-type campaign.

Now we get another closed-door deal. Hopefully, voters, conservative and liberal, will fire back.