Category Archives: Uncategorized

Good Luck With McAuliffe’s Ethics Panel

Image: Verdict Reached In Corruption Trial Of Former Virginia Governor McDonnell And His WifeBy Peter Galuszka

Despite the obvious need, Virginia still has done very little to address its monumental problems with ethics reform. The latest endeavor was announced yesterday by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, but it seems too much like just another panel.

And panel it is. McAuliffe has created the 10-member Commission to Ensure Integrity and Public Confidence in State Government. The good news is that it is bipartisan and seems filled with reasonable people, including Christopher Howard, president of Hampden-Sydney College and Sharon Bulova, chairwoman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

Leading it will be for Lt .Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican who has shown good sense in recent years and got screwed over by party hardliners who maneuvered to get former Atty. Gen. Kenneth Cuccinelli, a wild man, to run and lose in the 2013 governor’s race. His Democratic counterpart will be Rick Boucher, a former legislator from southwest Virginia.

The plan is to present a package of reforms that will deal with gift-giving and donations to politicians, and redistricting, or possibly redesigning some districts away from the madness that some, and mostly Republican legislators have created.

The impetus, naturally, is the first-ever conviction of a governor for corruption. Three weeks ago, a federal jury gave a resounding “guilty” on felony charges against Robert F. McDonnell and his wife Maureen. The U.S. Justice Department stepped in because Virginia’s state ethics laws were so ridiculously lax no one could ever have made the case. There had been lots of “gee, I don’t see a smoking gun” jabber on this blog and elsewhere, but, hey, why not poll the jury?

Just as the McDonnells were being indicted last January, the 2014 General Assembly considered ethics reform but did squat. It made accepting more than $250 in gifts verboten and expanded disclosure requirements to immediate family but the Republican-led led legislature left in a pile of loopholes. “Intangible” gifts, such as African safaris or trips to the Masters golf tournament are A-OK.

What’s needed is a real ethics commission with subpoena power. McAuliffe’s action was quickly derided by such leading lights of ethics reform as House Speaker Bill Howell and Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment. These two Ayatollahs of the Status Quo claimed that McAuliffe was a “latecomer” to an issue that they obviously have done nothing to improve despite their many years in office.

GOP Party Boss Pat Mullins took an irrelevant swipe at McAuliffe’s perceived ethics problems long before he was even governor.

Redistricting is just as important as ethics and I’m glad it is being addressed. Many Virginia districts have been gerrymandered to keep a particular party in office in ways that  protect the status quo and prevent change. Of 100 House of Delegates races in 2013, “only 12 to 14 were competitive,” notes Leigh Middleditch Jr., a Charlottesville lawyer and a founder of the Sorenson Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia, told me earlier this year.

Stephen Farnsworth, a political analyst at the University of Mary Washington, has studied gerrymandering for years and believes it negates general elections in favor of party primaries where a handful of hard right radicals can dominate.

This is especially true in some rural districts where tiny cadres of activists, again mostly Republicans, dominate the picks for primaries. It doesn’t matter what the general public thinks or wants. A narrow minority worms its way in power and becomes beholden not necessarily to the party overall, but a little slice of it.

That is why so little gets done.

The very fact that leaders like Howell and Norment are in place and the primary system will make McAuliffe’s efforts very difficult. One wonders if you could go outside the diseased legislative system and forced change through the courts.

It worked before against such Virginia travesties as Massive Resistance. Something to consider.

Tobacco Commission Needs Huge Makeover

tobacco leafBy Peter Galuszka

One more glaring example of mass corruption in Virginia is the grandly named Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission formed 14 years ago to dole out Virginia’s share of a $206 billion settlement among 45 other states with cigarette makers.

I’ve been writing for years about how millions of dollars are doled out with little oversight to economic development projects supposedly helpful to the former tobacco-growing parts of the state from the bright leaf belt around Dinwiddie out west to the burley leaf land of the mountains.

There have been no-strings giveaways to absentee tobacco quota holders, a board member sent to prison for siphoning off grant money and the shenanigans of the extended Kilgore family which is very politically powerful in those parts. The commission even figured in the McDonnell corruption trial starring the former and now convicted governor and back-slapping witnesses for the prosecution, entrepreneur and tobacco-believer Jonnie R. Williams Sr.

I revisit the issue in Sunday’s Washington Post and I ask the obvious question of why no one seems to watching the commission. I raise broader ones, too, such as why the commission  serves only people in the tobacco belt. That doesn’t seem fair since the Attorney General’s office represented all of the state in the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement against four major tobacco firms. People in Hampton Roads, Arlington, Onancock and Winchester should be benefit but get nothing from the settlement. They didn’t  because tobacco road legislators pulled a fast one back in 1999 when they set things up.

There needs to be a thorough disassembling of the commission’s current governance structure with many more people far from Tobacco Road included. There’s far too much family and friend back-scratching as it is. It is like watching a vintage episode of the Andy Griffith show but it really isn’t funny.

(Hat tip to James A. Bacon Jr. who spotted the commission as a great story back in the year 2000 when he was publisher of Virginia Business).

So, please read on.

The Huge Controversy Over Gas Pipelines

atlantic coast pipeline demonstratorsBy Peter Galuszka

Just a few years ago, Gov. Terry McAuliffe seemed to be a reasonable advocate of a healthy mix of energy sources. He boosted renewables and opposed offshore oil and gas drilling. He was suspicious of dangerous, dirty coal.

Then he started to change. During the campaign last year, he suddenly found offshore drilling OK, which got the green community worried. But there’s no doubt about his shifts with his wholehearted approval of the 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline proposed by Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and AGL Resources, along with Richmond-based Dominion, one of McAuliffe’s biggest campaign donors.

The $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline is part of a new phenomenon – bringing natural gas from the booming Marcellus Shale fields of Pennsylvania, Ohio and northern West Virginia towards busy utility markets in the Upper South states of Virginia, North Carolina and parts ones even farther south. Utilities like gas because it is cheap, easy to use, releases about half the carbon dioxide as coal, which is notorious for labor fatalities, disease, injuries and global warming.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would originate at Clarksburg, W.Va. (one of my home towns) and shoot southeast over the Appalachians, reaching heights of 4,000 feet among rare mountain plants in the George Washington National Forest, and then scoot through Nelson, Buckingham Nottoway Counties to North Carolina. At the border, one leg would move east to Portsmouth and the Tidewater port complex perhaps for export (although no one has mentioned that yet). The main line would then jog into Carolina roughly following the path of Interstate 95.

It’s not the only pipeline McAuliffe likes. An even newer proposal is the Mountain Valley Pipeline that would originate in southern West Virginia and move south of Roanoke to Chatham County. It also faces strong local opposition.

atlantic_coast_pipeline mapThe proposals have blindsided many in the environmental community who have shifted some of their efforts from opposing coal and mountaintop removal to going after hydraulic fracking which uses chemicals under high pressure and horizontal drilling to get previously inaccessible gas from shale formations. The Marcellus formation in Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and West Virginia, the birthplace of the American oil and gas industry, has been a treasure trove of new gas.

The fracked gas boom has been a huge benefit to the U.S. economy. It is making the country energy independent and has jump started older industries in steel, pipe making and the like. By replacing coal, it is making coal’s contribution to the national energy mix drop from about 50 percent to less than 40 percent and is cutting carbon dioxide emissions that help make for climate change.

That at least, is what the industry proponents will tell you and much of it is accurate. But there are big problems with natural gas (I’ll get to the pipelines later). Here’s Bill McKibben, a Middlebury College professor and nationally known environmentalist writing in Mother Jones:

Methane—CH4—is a rarer gas, but it’s even more effective at trapping heat. And methane is another word for natural gas. So: When you frack, some of that gas leaks out into the atmosphere. If enough of it leaks out before you can get it to a power plant and burn it, then it’s no better, in climate terms, than burning coal. If enough of it leaks, America’s substitution of gas for coal is in fact not slowing global warming.

Howarth’s (He is a biogeochemist) question, then, was: How much methane does escape? ‘It’s a hard physical task to keep it from leaking—that was my starting point,’ he says. ‘Gas is inherently slippery stuff. I’ve done a lot of gas chromatography over the years, where we compress hydrogen and other gases to run the equipment, and it’s just plain impossible to suppress all the leaks. And my wife, who was the supervisor of our little town here, figured out that 20 percent of the town’s water was leaking away through various holes. It turns out that’s true of most towns. That’s because fluids are hard to keep under control, and gases are leakier than water by a large margin.

Continue reading

The Simple, Lovable Sidewalk

sidewalk By Peter Galuszka

Forever humble, the simple sidewalk is becoming an issue in land planning and transportation.

In densely-populated populated urban areas, sidewalks have been a staple of living since the time of the Ancient Greeks. They were classics in the familiar grid plans that marked most American towns in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

It all changed after World War II when thousands of veterans came home with access to cars and cheap mortgages and builders started constructing car-centric neighborhoods. The cookie-cutter plan included big subdivisions with only one or two access points, lots of cul de sacs and long streets and wound around until they emptied into the few access roads.

You couldn’t walk anywhere. The feeling was, with the complicity of such car-centric bodies as the Virginia Department of Transportation, that you didn’t need sidewalks because the kids could play in the cul de sacs and anyone could drive.

This started to change a decade or so ago as pe0ple wanted to walk more to the library, the store or to visit a neighbor. Suburban planners are taking this into consideration and are “encouraging” developers to put in sidewalks.

A couple problems here:

First, although the Tim Kaine administration changed VDOT policy to advocate more intersecting streets in new developments along with sidewalks, the policy has been watered down under pressure from the development industry.

The other problem is that while it is a simple matter to put sidewalks in new projects, retrofitting them in older ones is tough. It is expensive, there are rights of way issues and sometimes the terrain doesn’t lend itself to them. And, when sidewalks are put in, they merely connect with gigantic feeder roads where one might have to walk a half a mile to a stoplight just cross safely, as is the case in one instance in Chesterfield County.

For more, read my recent pieces in the Chesterfield Monthly and Henrico Monthly.

Richmond’s Tech Star in Kickback Scheme?

HDL LogoBy Peter Galuszka

Critics of the American healthcare system have long cited hidden charges as one reason why costs are so high and why reform is needed.

So, it is disturbing to read a report on the front page of today’s Wall Street Journal that Health Diagnostic Laboratory, arguably the most successful of the biotechnology firms to come out of a much-touted research park in Richmond, is implicated in a possible scheme to pay kickbacks to doctors who use its blood testing services.

The Journal reports:

Until late June, HDL paid $20 per blood sample to most doctors ordering its tests — more than other labs paid. For some physician practices, payments totaled several thousand dollars a week, says a former company employee.

HDL says it stopped those payments after a Special Fraud Alert on June 25 from the Department of Health and Human Services, which warned that such remittances presented “substantial risk of fraud and abuse under the anti-kickback statute.

HDL Chief Executive Tonya Mallory told the Journal that her firm “rejects any assertion” that the company grew as fast as it did “as a result of anything other than proper business practices.”

Meanwhile, HDL has sent Bacon Rebellion this updated response.

Others say that paying doctors fees sets up the chances for fraud, especially in Medicare, one of HDL’s biggest markets, the Journal reports. Other testing firms, the Journal reports, pay doctors nothing for using their services.

This is bad news for what was Richmond’s Poster Child of successful high tech startups after years of flops at the Virginia Biotechnology Research Park. Founded in 2008 under Mallory’s leadership, HDL zipped up to $383 million in revenues with 41 percent of that coming from Medicare,” the Journal says.

Much of the issue seems to be related to how accurately and fairly to define what is merely drawing a patient’s blood and how much goes for “P&H” or processing and handling. A problem is that Medicare doesn’t pay any more than $3 for merely drawing blood. HDL has estimated that the “P&H” part is worth about $17. The firm claims it has special proprietary methods that give it an edge.

According to Virginia Business magazine, which named Mallory its person of the year last year:

Mallory, 48, founded HDL in the summer of 2009. Since then, it has grown from a kitchen-table business plan to a corporation earning more than $420 million in annual revenue, employing 750 people, processing 4,000 lab samples and running more than 60,000 lab tests each day. HDL has driven near constant construction at its home in downtown Richmond’s Virginia BioTechnology Research Park, where a $68.5 million expansion soon will triple the company’s footprint to 280,000 square feet.

Last year Mallory received the Ernst & Young National Entrepreneur of the Year award in the Emerging Company category. One of the country’s most prestigious business awards for entrepreneurs, it recognizes leaders who demonstrate innovation, financial success and personal commitment as they build their businesses.

The Journal, however, quotes several disgruntled employees and notes that Mallory had worked for a California firm called “Berkeley Heart Lab Inc,.” which began using tests called “biomarkers” which can predict future health problems by analyzing blood.

Mallory, who was raised in Hanover County and attended Virginia Commonwealth University, was senior lab-operations manager at Berkeley until she left for Richmond in 2008, the Journal says. Two Berkeley sales executives went with her and formed a company that ended up marketing HDL’s products.
Berkeley sued HDL, accusing it of stealing its business. HDL denied the allegations. HDL settled one case for $7 million, the Journal says, but other cases are pending.

Why There Will be No Ethics Reform

maureen_and_bob(1)By Peter Galuszka

As the McDonnell corruption trial moves towards its end, the predictable stories are decrying – once again – Virginia’s absurdly lax ethics laws and why they must be toughened.

There’s the usual observation that the five-week extravaganza of a trial that is drawing international attention will put the state on an entirely new axis when it comes to public integrity. Plenty of harrumphing.

The General Assembly, however, had its shot this winter and came through with only very mild changes putting dollar limits for tangible “gifts” while failing to take any kind of substantive measure, such as establishing a real investigatory ethics commission.

The best work I’ve seen has come from the Roanoke Times’ Dan Casey who pored over the new ethics law that went into effect July 1 and compared it with testimony that ended last week at the McDonnell trial (it goes to the jury tomorrow.)

A few of Casey’s pointers:

  • The famous $6,500 Rolex. Would Jonnie Williams been stopped from giving it to Maureen and then Bob McDonnell? Not at all. The new law says that officials, spouses an immediate family may not accept anything tangible that is more than $250 in value. But, this applies only to lobbyists and business executives seeking state contracts. Williams wasn’t looking for a traditional state contract, specifically. He wanted gubernatorial help in prompting his product Anatabloc and gubernatorial muscle to pressure state universities into researching its key ingredient, anatabine.
  •  Bob probably wouldn’t have had to report the Rolex because it came from a “personal friend” who is not a lobbyist or person doing business with the state. At least McDonnell testified that he thought he was a friend. Not Jonnie whose plan was  to schmooze up Maureen and Bob, get them to get state university research and then the schools would apply to the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission to give them more research money (plus the prestige of having the University of Virginia or Virginia Commonwealth University seal of approval on it.)
  • McDonnell daughter Cailin didn’t want the $15,000 Jonnie gave for her wedding luncheon. In fact, she wanted a very different, much smaller wedding that she and her husband would mostly finance. Mommy and Daddy said no but were short funds and Jonnie helped out. Would the new law change anything? Not at all. The law puts the $250 limit on “tangibles” but “intangibles” like dinners, outings, five figure vacations, a wedding event or $5,000 Louis XIII cognac bottles don’t count although they are supposed to be reported.
  • As for an ethics commission, we have a milquetoast “advisory” panel that has no investigative power. Once again, the “Virginia Way” prevails (see my Washington Post piece from last year. The state is all about self-policing because it is assumed that since Thomas Jefferson was honest, Virginia politicians must be, too. While Virginia has an excellent data base, the Virginia Public Assess Project, a non-profit, that can reveal what’s reported quickly and easily, it is too often seen as a substitute for a real ethics commission with subpoena power.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who signed the limp-wristed law, says he wants to review ethics and make regs tougher.

I doubt that will happen. I do not think we’re seeing a sea change in attitudes among legislators. Even if voters were going nuts, they’d still have to deal with a General Assembly that is dominated by hard-right Republicans who are selected in primaries and not general elections and are probably the most conservative ever thanks to gerrymandering and the anti-reg mantra they pray like a Rosary.

Can GiftGate happen again in Virginia? In the words of convicted former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich: “You betcha!”

Comparing Virginia’s First Ladies

 By Peter Galuszka

Military Moms From  Ft. Belvoir Attend Group Baby Shower

Maureen McDonnell

How does Maureen McDonnell define being Virginia’s first spouse? What does she say about other women who are or have been in her role? How does she compare with other First Ladies?

Testimony in the federal corruption trial of Ms. McDonnell and her husband former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell has been highly defamatory to her. She’s been characterized as a greedy, deceptive “nutbag” who misled her husband, demanded fine things like designer clothing, and maintained a strange, emotionally close relationship to Jonnie R. Williams, a businessman who gave the McDonnells more than $170,000 in various loans and gifts to gain their help in promoting his products.

In another setting, anything of this, assuming it is true, would be a personal matter. But it isn’t. The fact is that Ms. McDonnell was very much a part of the political process. McDonnell ran for office repeatedly on the theme that he and his wife were religious, family-oriented individuals dedicated to public service. She could have chosen to minimize her role but she did not.

In fact, according to evidence introduced at the trial, she actually sent instructions to state employees pretending that she had the authority of the “Gov” to do the bidding of Williams. And when she traveled with Williams out of state to promote his product Anatabloc, she represented herself as “The First Lady of Virginia” and often had security officers with her at taxpayers expense. In other words, she is fair game for comparisons. Mind you, just a few years ago, this woman could have been a possibility for First Lady of the United States some time down the road.

She grew up mostly in Northern Virginia in a large family parented by civil service workers of the FBI. The former Washington Redskins cheerleader attended community college and worked mostly as a secretarial worker or aide for the FBI and other federal agencies. She and her husband have five children, and besides raising them, she has had a small, part-time business selling beauty and creams and health aids. As First Lady, she ran an initiative to help women and promote wine, veterans benefits and other matters.

The trial, now entering its fourth week, begs questions about what differentiates her background and behavior  with that of other recent First Ladies. I think it is a fair question. None of the others has ever had similar questions about them. I think a review of their backgrounds and accomplishments is the best way to make the point. Here goes:

Dorothy McauliffeDorothy McAuliffe, wife of current Gov. Terry McAuliffe. A graduate of The Catholic University of America and the Georgetown University Law Center, she has practiced securities law and now advocates for children and family issues.

Anne Holton, wife of former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine. As a child, Anne-Holtonshe and her father, former Gov. Linwood Holton, made national headlines during the civil rights area when they were photographed walking hand-in-hand to a newly integrated Richmond public school. The brave image helped calm tensions over court-ordered integration. She graduated magna cum laude from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton and then got a law degree cum laude from Harvard. She was a prominent judge specializing in youth and domestic relations issues and is now Virginia’s Secretary of Education.lisa_collis2

Lisa Collis, wife of former Gov. and U.S. Senator Mark Warner. A graduate of the University of Virginia and the University of Texas, she has specialized in health and youth  issues as head of the Collis Warner Foundation.

Roxanne Gatling Gilmore, wife of former Gov. Jim Gilmore. A roxannegildescendant of the man who invented the rapid-fire Gatling gun, Ms. Gilmore is a University of Virginia graduate and has a bachelor’s and master’s degree. A specialist in classical studies she has taught Latin at the high school level and has been a professor in Greek and Roman studies at Randolph Macon College. She oversaw a multimillion makeover of the Executive Mansion and later wrote a book about it.

Susan-AllenSusan Brown Allen, wife of former Gov. and former U.S. Senator George Allen. She is a marketing specialist from Charlottesville who graduated from the University of South Carolina.

With one possible exception, I’d say that Virginia should be proud of its FLOVAs, the security term for First Lady.

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.

The problem with the death penalty

death penalty

D.J. Rippert

Virginia’s non-debate.  Politics in Virginia includes a lot of debates.  Trasnportation funding.  Medicaid expansion.  Taxes.  However, one critical aspect of Virginia law has fallen from view – the death penalty.  This lack of debate over the death penalty is not due to a lack of executions.  Since 1976 Virginia has posted the third most executions of any state – far behind Texas but only one execution behind Oklahoma.

The Innocence Project.  The Innocence Project is a non-profit group of lawyers who re-examine the cases of people convicted of serious crimes.  The group often uses new DNA techniques to determine whether a conviction was correct or in error.  To date, the Innocence Project has exonerated 16 Virginians of serious crimes.  Some of those innocent people were on Virginia’s death row when they were exonerated of the crimes that landed them on death row.  One such case was the conviction of Earl Washington.  Convicted of rape and murder Earl Washington was sentenced to death.  Subsequent DNA testing cleared Washington of the rape and murder convictions.  Mr. Washington’s case prompted an independent audit of Virginia’s DNA testing lab.  The results were not encouraging.

  • “This laboratory that touts itself as the best DNA laboratory in the country generated erroneous test results in a capital case, twice, using two different DNA methods,” said Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project. “The audit reveals not only that the laboratory’s most senior DNA analyst, responsible for DNA testing in many of the state’s capital cases, made serious errors, but that the laboratory’s system to catch these errors completely failed. This audit provides compelling evidence that crime labs cannot police themselves, and that only with the statutory requirement that they be subject to independent, expert oversight can we have faith that appropriate controls are in place.”

Enter the feds.  Virginia is not the only political entity with suspect processes in criminal investigations.  Recent evidence suggests that the vaunted FBI may have been responsible for systematic and willful mismanagement of critical evidence.  Of the 2,600 convictions obtained through these flawed processes 45 resulted in the imposition of the death penalty.  More troublesome, the agency did not inform the convicts of the problems after they were discovered and spent years debating the matter rather than promptly following up on the convictions.

Redo.  You can’t undo an execution.  Conservatives in Virginia will rail against abortion as the murder of innocents.  However, reasonable people can honestly debate when life begins.  There can be no debate as to whether a person convicted of a crime is alive or not.  There can only be a discussion of whether state sanctioned murder is an appropriate remedy for the crime.  In too many cases shoddy evidence analysis and law enforcement puts these convictions in doubt.  It is time for Virginia’s politicians to restart the necessary debate as to whether the state should execute living human beings on behalf of its citizens.