Tuesday, November 30, 2010

McDonnell Turns To Tobacco Commission For Help Luring Company

Gov. Bob McDonnell is looking to land a California biotechnology business with the help of a commission that has been struggling to fulfill its mission of revitalizing Virginia's tobacco belt.

McDonnell made a surprise visit yesterday to the executive committee of the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, but not to talk about ways to tighten oversight of its finances in the wake of a $4 million fraud perpetrated on the panel by a former state finance secretary.

Instead, the governor was there to tell the committee that he needs the commission's help in competing for business associated with Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a Silicon Valley venture-capital company whose Greentech team includes former Vice President Al Gore.

"This is a very exciting opportunity for Virginia," McDonnell said before Commerce and Trade Secretary James Cheng cautioned him about revealing details in a public meeting.

Afterward, the executive committee met for more than two hours in closed session with representatives of the California firm but adjourned its public meeting without taking further action. Members would not discuss what kind of help the governor is seeking from a commission that handles more than $1 billion in money from a national settlement of state health claims against the tobacco industry more than a decade ago.

There was no mention in the meeting of John W. Forbes II, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison last week for defrauding the tobacco commission of more than $4 million from a grant it made to a foundation he created in 2001. Forbes, who was a member of the commission as finance secretary for then-Gov. Jim Gilmore, had promised to use the money to provide educational opportunities for undereducated residents of Southside and Southwest Virginia.

McDonnell said last week that he will work with the General Assembly "to ensure that such actions can never take place again," but he offered nothing but praise for the tobacco commission yesterday.

"Overall, the commission is well-run," he told reporters, citing the leadership of Del. Terry G. Kilgore, R-Scott, who is chairman of the panel. "But there's room for improvement."

Kilgore convened the executive committee meeting after a call from the governor about the possible economic-development opportunity in the tobacco region. The opportunity would involve state incentives, including some drawn from federal stimulus funds, in a competition with Mississippi and other states to attract the unnamed business.

"Obviously, if this is in the footprint of the tobacco commission, we would be aggressive joint venturers," said Sen. William C. Wampler Jr., R-Bristol.

McDonnell hinted publicly that part of the commission's role is the five energy research and development centers it has helped establish in the tobacco belt from Halifax to Wise County. "This fits exactly into that model," he said.

Robert T. Skunda, president and chief executive officer of the Virginia BioTechnology Research Park, said the tobacco region would be attractive for companies developing alternative sources of energy, such as biomass.

Kleiner Perkins' Greentech portfolio includes 20 alternative-energy companies. The Greentech team includes Gore, chairman of Generation Investment Management, which has allied with Kleiner Perkins.

By: Michael Martz
Richmond Times Dispatch
November 30, 2010

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