Win tickets to see the smash hit musical Mamma Mia at the Roanoke Civic Center. Two winners will each receive four tickets!
Staff members have said there is a hostile work environment at the Executive Mansion, and Maureen McDonnell has been caught up in controversy surrounding her daughter's wedding.
Associated Press | File 2011
Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams (right) and Virginia first lady Maureen McDonnell chat during a reception at the Executive Mansion in Richmond.
Sunday, July 14, 2013
In hundreds of photos on the governor’s state website, Maureen McDonnell appears a smiling hostess to business leaders, politicians, teachers and others at events in Virginia’s 200-year-old Executive Mansion.
In her 3½ years as first lady, she has focused her attention on promoting Virginia’s wine industry, supporting military families and celebrating the historic property.
But according to multiple sources with knowledge of the situation, McDonnell could be so difficult to work for that several staff members wrote a letter to the governor’s office complaining about the hostile environment she created at the mansion.
The governor’s office has refused to confirm the letter’s existence, but the sources said it voiced frustration with Maureen McDonnell’s treatment of mansion employees as well as state troopers in the first family’s security detail.
Now, instead of a bicentennial celebration, the mansion is under siege, with Maureen McDonnell in the middle of a furor that has engulfed Virginia’s first family.
A former chef is under indictment for allegedly embezzling food from the mansion for his personal business, but he says administration officials told him to take food in lieu of payment for working private, personal and political events.
The mansion itself has provided the backdrop for an ever-growing saga over gifts to the first family from a businessman whose company is under federal investigation for possible securities violations.
The catering for a June 2011 wedding reception at the mansion for one of the governor’s daughters was paid for by Jonnie Williams, chief executive officer of Henrico County-based Star Scientific Inc. Williams’ known gifts and loans to the family now exceed $145,000, much of it previously unreported by Gov. Bob McDonnell.
Less than three months after the reception, the mansion was the setting for a luncheon to launch the marketing of a dietary supplement produced by Star and publicly promoted by Maureen McDonnell.
FBI and state investigators are examining the McDonnells’ use of mansion resources and their relationship with Williams.
The governor has maintained that Star Scientific has received no special treatment or benefits from his administration. He has said that Williams and his wife, Celeste, are friends.
But that friendship includes political donations for the governor and personal gifts for his family, and revelations about the gifts have drawn a new public image for the first lady.
Maureen McDonnell has made few public appearances since stories began appearing about the family’s ties to Williams, including her 2011 trip to New York, where she was treated to a high-end shopping spree courtesy of Williams.
Several requests made over the past two months for an interview have either been rejected or received no answer.
The first lady, while an important figure with a tremendous megaphone for her platform, is not a state employee. She does not receive a salary from the state, although she has an office at the Executive Mansion.
She serves as an honorary chairwoman for several community groups, according to her biography on her state Web page , but her work has largely centered on her FLITE program — First Lady’s Initiatives Team Effort. It focuses on four areas: preventative health care; military families; Virginia wine, tourism and film; and women’s initiatives.
Since her husband took office in January 2010, she has promoted Virginia wine, film and tourism around the state and even a few patches overseas.
But ongoing scrutiny of the finances and relationships of Virginia’s first family has turned a harsher spotlight on Maureen McDonnell.
The scrutiny of mansion operations began with a state investigation of a former executive chef, Todd Schneider.
Schneider is charged with four felony counts of embezzlement, alleging that he stole food and supplies from the mansion to finance his private catering operation. The chef maintains that he was told to take food from the mansion in lieu of payment for the catering services he provided that were not covered.
The first family also was the beneficiary of a $15,000 check from Williams to Schneider’s catering company to cover the catering at the June 2011 wedding of their daughter Cailin at the Executive Mansion.
Bob McDonnell, who signed the catering contract and had paid $8,000 in deposits, did not disclose the check, calling it a gift to his daughter. A refund check of $3,500 from Schneider’s Great Seasons Catering Co., however, was sent to Maureen McDonnell.
State law requires elected officials and others to disclose any gift in excess of $50, but it does not place the same reporting requirement on gifts to immediate family members.
The $15,000 check was dated May 23 — just more than a week before Williams flew Maureen McDonnell to Florida on his private jet to attend a June 1 briefing on research conducted on Anatabloc, Star’s dietary supplement.
A spokesman for the governor’s office said the first lady asked to go to tour the research facility, observe clinical trials and hear from doctors about studies relating to a potential Alzheimer’s-related treatment.
“The Roskamp Institute trip was of particular interest to the first lady because Governor McDonnell’s father had passed away the previous year with Alzheimer’s,” Bob McDonnell’s spokesman Tucker Martin said.
Martin said that during lunch at the event, “the first lady was asked to make brief impromptu remarks, a request she accommodated.” According to one attendee of the program, Maureen McDonnell mentioned having a launch party for the product at the Executive Mansion.
An event was held at the mansion two months later, in August 2011, and included an appearance by the governor.
The governor’s office has said the event, organized by the first lady’s office and paid for by the governor’s political action committee, was for Star Scientific to award research grants to two public university health systems in Virginia.
Her interaction with Williams and Anatabloc extended into 2012. The first lady’s office included Anatabloc in a gift bag presented to a number of first spouses when they visited the Executive Mansion as part of the National Governors Association meeting, which was held in Williamsburg in July 2012.
Maureen McDonnell also has found work as a paid consultant to the philanthropic arm of the United Co., a coal and real estate business based in Bristol, according to The Washington Post, which reported she was paid $36,000 in 2012 for her work.
McDonnell has said he is looking into his wife’s relationship with the foundation to determine whether to correct his financial disclosure statements. He had listed her in 2011 and 2012 as a paid trustee for the Frances G. and James W. McGlothlin Foundation, but did not show any compensation.
Virginia law requires all state elected officials to report employment that pays them or an immediate family member more than $10,000 annually.
Todd Haymore, Virginia’s secretary of agriculture and forestry, has worked closely with Maureen McDonnell on efforts to promote the state’s wine industry and wine tourism. They have hosted receptions on overseas trade missions and participated in winery tours.
Haymore said the role played by the governor and first lady in promoting Virginia wines around the country and world has helped increase sales.
“Without the inclusion of Virginia wine and wine promotion in these trade missions alone, would we have seen increases in international sales to the degree that we’ve seen in recent years? No,” he said last week.
Maureen McDonnell has also cast a spotlight on the Executive Mansion, arranging numerous events and projects around the bicentennial of the oldest continuously occupied governor’s residence in the country.
That includes commissioning portraits of all the living first ladies as well as planting grape vines behind the mansion and combining the juice from those grapes with juice from other areas to make a blend called “1813.”
She also oversaw the creation of a book that delves into the history of the mansion, including stories and photos of its occupants over the years — including a photograph of Cailin’s wedding reception there.
Cessie Howell, wife of Speaker of the House William Howell, R-Stafford, has known the first lady from the time the governor was in the legislature. She is also a member of the Citizens Advisory Council on Furnishing and Interpreting the Executive Mansion.
Howell said her committee considered replacing the parquet flooring on the first floor of the mansion because it was in poor shape but that the first lady did some research and found a product to apply that would preserve the wood.
“We were always so thankful that she saved so much money in really researching that,” Howell said.
With the responsibility of the Executive Mansion, staffed by state employees, comes public accountability.
“Because first ladies are not paid, we generally have not covered them with great scrutiny,” said Larry Sabato, head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “That doesn’t mean that they’re sacrosanct.”
But Sabato said the buck stops with the governor.
“It is always the governor’s responsibility ultimately to run his family and the mansion, as well as the state of Virginia.”
Weather JournalStorm track isn't very snowy for us