RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia’s government watchdog is investigating whether laws were broken when a political advertising agency that produced Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s campaign ads got a $268,600 state contract for a tourism video featuring the governor.
Kate Hourin, a spokesperson for the Office of the State Inspector General (OSIG), said they’re looking into whether the Virginia Tourism Corporation “followed the appropriate procurement laws and policies, and whether there was any waste of government funds.”
OSIG is specifically scrutinizing the selection of Poolhouse, a Richmond ad agency that was awarded the taxpayer-funded contract for the “Governor’s Welcome Project” video.
Public records show Poolhouse previously received $1.5 million from Youngkin’s campaign for political ads during his bid for governor.
The state tourism video, displayed now in Virginia airports and welcome centers, shows people enjoying various activities with Youngkin narrating from the Richmond Raceway.
Youngkin didn’t take questions at an event on Thursday morning and his office declined to comment on the investigation.
Earlier this month, Youngkin told reporters that he played no role in the selection of Poolhouse.
“We just don’t. Part of the things that I understand as governor is there are things that I have to pay attention to every day and there are things that I allow great people to go run with,” Youngkin said.
Questions about the bid process and accusations of “government corruption” led the top two Democrats in the Virginia General Assembly to send a letter to Inspector General Michael Westfall requesting an investigation.
“This situation presents serious questions regarding the use of taxpayer dollars for political purposes, and abuse of and/or the continued existence of the VTA’s procurement exemption,” Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) and House Minority Leader Don L. Scott Jr. (D-Portsmouth) wrote in the Oct. 6 letter.
In an interview on Thursday, Scott specifically raised concerns about Youngkin’s administration using taxpayer dollars to boost his image ahead of a possible 2024 presidential bid. Youngkin has not announced plans to run but he hasn’t ruled it out.
Hourin said the watchdog agency determined that certain allegations made about the Virginia Tourism Corp. fall under its jurisdiction and the office “is conducting a Hotline administrative investigation.” She said the inspector general won’t review every question brought forward by Sen. Saslaw and Del. Scott because they are not within its jurisdiction.
Virginia Tourism CEO Rita McClenny said in a previous statement that Poolhouse was picked “because they are a local, talented, Virginia-based company that has done exceptional work for other corporate clients from Anheuser-Busch to Honda to GE.”
McClenny also told another media outlet that Poolhouse was initially the only firm approached, and two other firms that ultimately did not submit bids were considered only after Youngkin’s office expressed concerns about the process.
VTC’s own procurement rules say at least six bids for contracts costing more than $100,000 are needed. McClenny told Virginia Public Media that the policies allow her to bypass those rules. She also said that Poolhouse was hired in part due to the firm’s “familiarity” with Youngkin.
The Virginia Tourism Corporation and Poolhouse did not respond to requests for comment.
Shruti Shah, president and CEO of the non-profit Coalition For Integrity, said the state should’ve been extra sensitive to accusations of favoritism because of Poolhouse’s previous work for Youngkin’s campaign. She said officials appeared to skip important steps during the selection process, raising legitimate questions.
“It appears they didn’t follow competitive bidding processes and also it appears that it was an extraordinarily short timeline which only one vendor could fulfill and that vendor could only fulfill it because they received information prior to the other vendors, which doesn’t mean that there was fair and equitable treatment. That all causes concern,” Shah said.