Emails: Researchers believed Gov. McDonnell backed Star Scientific studies
(AP) - Emails from 2011 show that university researchers believed they had Gov. Bob McDonnell's support for obtaining money from a state trust fund to bankroll studies for a nutritional supplement maker that's now being investigated over its ties to the governor, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
Federal investigators are looking into whether McDonnell took steps to aid the company, Star Scientific, or its chief executive, Jonnie Williams Sr., in exchange for more than $145,000 in gifts and loans Williams lavished on the first family.
The emails show that researchers were aware of Williams' friendship with McDonnell and were under the impression the governor wanted to tap funds from the state tobacco commission for research into possible anti-inflammatory capabilities of a new Star Scientific product.
"Mr Williams is very good friend with the Governor and the governor would like to sponsor these trials as evidence of Virginia's committment to research and entrepreneurship," John Clore, a diabetes researcher at Virginia Commonwealth University, wrote in a July 1, 2011 email to research colleagues at the university.
The emails were obtained by The Associated Press through open records requests. The content of the emails was first reported Saturday by The Washington Post.
Clore told his colleagues that Williams was offering to fly him on his private jet to Gibson Island, on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay, to learn more about the research opportunities. He said in a separate email recapping the meeting that there was a "very high likelihood" of obtaining funding.
"The Governor would like to use tobacco funds to support virginia research demonstrating the states committment to support research to reduce health care costs in the commonwealth," he said.
In another email, Clore said the company was requesting applications for $25,000 it could provide the researchers in planning grants. The initial funding would help them prepare to seek $2.5 million in funds from the tobacco commission to complete the studies. The emails show the company's subsidiary was also in touch with with officials at the University of Virginia in the hopes of using tobacco money for research.
Clore has declined to discuss the emails through his lawyer.
The tobacco commission allocates millions in funding each year for projects to help the state recover from the declining tobacco industry. Its funding comes from the 1998 legal settlement with tobacco companies.
While the governor has no direct say in commission matters, members are appointed by the governor and the legislature, and three McDonnell cabinet members are on the board.
The emails, and many others obtained through open records requests, show no proof that the governor, first lady or their staffs reached out to the tobacco commission or researchers on Williams' behalf.
"The governor never asked or directed anyone, including officials at UVA and VCU, to assist Star Scientific in obtaining research funding from the Virginia Tobacco Fund," McDonnell spokesman Jason Miyares said in a statement. "Also, the Governor never told anyone at Star Scientific that he would try to help the company get funding from the Tobacco Commission."
No tobacco fund money was ever given to Star Scientific or subsidiary Rock Creek Pharmaceuticals, Miyares said. He and the commission chairman say there is no evidence the company ever applied for such a grant.
The email exchanges came at the same time the governor and first lady were taking steps to promote the product; the first lady flew to Florida to tout its benefits to physicians and investors, and a launch party for the product, Anatabloc, was hosted at the Executive Mansion.
Clore wrote in an email to colleagues that Johns Hopkins University endocrinologist Paul Ladenson had been in contact with him to measure VCU's interest in participating in studies on anatabine, a tobacco alkaloid and an active ingredient in Anatabloc, the emails show. Hopkins has identified Ladenson as a consultant to Star Scientific.
That fall, according to the emails, a research scientist told another VCU researcher that he was awaiting details on the application process for using tobacco settlement trust funds. The scientist, Ryan Lanier, said lawyers were working out the logistics with representatives from VCU and the University of Virginia, "as well as with government officials in VA."
But that process dragged out over the next few months, and 2011 ended without a full application being submitted to the Virginia Tobacco Commission, according to the emails.
"We are, however, continuing to work with officials at UVA and VCU with the Tobacco Commission on the best course of action to secure funding for the proposed studies with anatabine. This involves lots of lawyers, as well as officials from both universities and the VA state government," Lanier wrote in a Jan. 5, 2012 email to Richard Sterling, a VCU doctor who submitted a research plan involving anatabine.
Republican Del. Terry Kilgore, chairman of the tobacco commission, said he learned from his staff that a Star Scientific representative had contacted the commission about the application process, but he said he did not believe any application for the funds was ever submitted. The commission said in response to an open records request for communication between the governor or his staff on behalf of the company that it had no record of any such correspondence.
Kilgore's brother, Jerry Kilgore, is Williams' private attorney. He refused to comment.
The company has made clear that it's banking on the success of Anatabloc to revive its tenuous financial prospects. In regulatory filings, the company reported a net loss of $16.9 million in the six months ending June 30 and, after discontinuing other products because of poor sales, has said most of its revenue derives from Anatabloc. Besides the federal investigation into the relationship with the McDonnells - the company has said it doesn't expect criminal charges - Star Scientific also faces shareholder lawsuits accusing it of misleading investors about its relationship with Johns Hopkins researchers.
Editor's note: Misspellings of the word "committment" and other errors in capitalization and grammar are consistent with content of emails.