Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell speaks to the press in front of a statue of George… (Steve Helber/Associated…)
Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, had about 200 guests to Virginia’s historic Executive Mansion for their daughter Cailin’s wedding in 2011. The menu included fresh poached jumbo shrimp, bruschetta topped with Virginia tomatoes and stuffed free-range chicken breast.
The $15,000 worth of fine dining came courtesy of Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the chief executive of a company that has made major contributions to McDonnell’s campaigns and that is the subject of a federal securities investigation.
The wedding gift, which was not disclosed by McDonnell, is just one element of the McDonnells’ close relationship with Williams and his company, a relationship that has included rides on Williams’s corporate jet, personal gifts to the first family and efforts by the governor and his wife to promote the company.
Events surrounding the first daughter’s wedding show the extent of the bond.
Just about the time Cailin McDonnell got married, Williams’s company, Star Scientific, was introducing a dietary supplement called Anatabloc, whose key ingredient is found in tobacco and other plants.
Anatabloc was crucial to the future of the company, which has been losing money for years. But the science behind the product — an anti-inflammatory the company hopes might be helpful to people with such ailments as Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis — was unproven.
Three days before her daughter’s June wedding, Maureen McDonnell flew to Florida, where she spoke at a seminar for scientists and investors interested in anatabine, the key chemical in Anatabloc, according to people who attended the conference.
The governor’s wife told the group that she supported the product and touted the pill, which is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, as a way to lower health-care costs in Virginia, the attendees said.
About three months after the wedding, the McDonnells and Star Scientific were together again, this time at the governor’s mansion for the official launch party for Anatabloc.
McDonnell and Williams both declined to be interviewed for this article. Through a spokesman, the governor responded to a list of questions. In his written answers to some of those questions, the spokesman, Jeff Caldwell, said Williams picked up the catering bill for the wedding as a gift to Cailin and her husband, Chris Young. Because it was not a gift to the governor, Virginia law did not require McDonnell to include it on his annual disclosure form, Caldwell said.
Caldwell said the first family’s efforts on behalf of Virginia-based Star Scientific were typical of what any governor would do to promote the state’s businesses and products.
In Internet forums, boosters of the company’s stock have cited the connection to the McDonnells as a reason to believe in Star Scientific, despite its shaky finances. A photo of the smiling governor holding a packet of Anatabloc has appeared on the Anatabloc Facebook page. (Caldwell said McDonnell, who has used the supplement, did not authorize the use of the picture.)
In addition, launching Anatabloc with a luncheon at the mansion, a 200-year-old landmark that is the nation’s oldest continuously occupied gubernatorial residence, gave the company a boost, according to a doctor who attended.
“It was an event that was designed to try to make a big splash,” said John Clore, a professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine. “That was the week it was showing up in stores.”
The Florida seminar
Maureen McDonnell’s presence at the Florida event, hosted by the Sarasota-based Roskamp Institute, caused a stir.
The governor’s wife, a former Washington Redskins cheerleader, has long been interested in nutrition and dietary supplements. According to her official biography, she launched a small business that helped market nutritional products.
Her brief speech at Roskamp, which is conducting research on Anatabloc under a royalty agreement with Star Scientific, was a “communique that wowed attendees,” California investor John Faessel wrote in an online posting.
“She spoke briefly about the company and the work they were doing, and how she believed it would be important not only for the people of Virginia but for society in general, to help them ward off this inflammation,” Faessel said in an interview.
Patrick Cox, a stock adviser from Maryland who also attended the event, said Maureen McDonnell “expressed support” for Anatabloc. “My understanding is that she’s trying to find ways to lower medical costs,” he said. “She’s working with other first ladies and first husbands to get the word out what this will do.”
Caldwell said Maureen McDonnell attended the event to tour the Roskamp facility and hear about potential treatments of Alzheimer’s — of particular interest to her because the governor’s father died of the disease a year earlier. She also went as a “strong promoter of Virginia businesses,” Caldwell said.