Last week, the former governor of Virginia and his wife were indicted for taking more than $140,000 in gifts and loans to allegedly pimp for a small, money-losing dietary supplement company run by a flamboyant businessman with no scientific background. The governor's wife even talked of turning state employees into guinea pigs to test the company's product, according to the indictment.
Ex-Gov. Bob McDonnell and Maureen McDonnell may go to jail for their sins. What’s weirder is this: Star Scientific is still selling its product, despite an FDA warning that this violates the law. The company's former boss, the man who bestowed on the McDonnells golf outings, designer clothes, and a Rolex monogrammed with “71st Governor of Virginia,” is free and cooperating with the feds.
Unseemly as it may have been, the McDonnells' alleged corruption is pretty small beer. The more important issue is why the owner of a small dietary supplement company required—and had the wherewithal to obtain—private help from a top politician.
The $32 billion dietary supplements industry is the natural home of the American scam artist. The industry relies on the credulity of customers who gobble up weeds and pills and powders that often do not contain what's on their labels, which often make unproven health claims. The industry’s machinations are enabled by weak regulation, and Food and Drug Administration oversight of the industry has been limited by politicians such as Orrin Hatch and Tom Harkin, who despite their political differences share a wonder of vitamins and other supplements.
Is it too much to hope that the humiliation of Bob and Maureen McDonnell could open a few eyes to the vileness of this industry—if only by revealing how influential it has become?
The man who bought down the McDonnells, Jonnie Williams, has a long history of starting companies that get sued and go bankrupt, and of walking away with the cash—he's said to be worth $100 million.
His latest company, Star Scientific, has had a particularly odd run of luck. The company, from which Williams resigned last month, lost money almost every year after going public in 1997. But Williams had a private jet, membership in country clubs, and plenty of spending cash.
One former Capitol Hill staffer spoke of being lobbied around 2000 by Star Scientific executives who claimed they were making safer tobacco products, although the core business was selling generic smokes to poor people. “The whole thing didn't make sense,” he told me. “They claimed to have a public health mission they were financing by selling cheap cigarettes.”
In 2007 Star Scientific stopped selling cigarettes and focused on smokeless tobacco products that it claimed were low in nitrosamines, some of the dozens of carcinogens found in tobacco. In 2012 it dropped the tobacco business altogether and created a partnership with the Roskamp Institute, a private research organization in Sarasota, Fla., to test a product called Anatabloc, which contained vitamins and a synthetically produced tobacco derivative called anatabine.
Star gave Roskamp a large chunk of company stock, and Roskamp started doing research on anatabine.
On July 31, 2011, the day Williams lent Bob McDonnell his Ferrari, the governor ordered the Virginia secretary of health to help arrange trials for Anatabloc as a treatment for autoimmune diseases “at vcu [Virginia Commonwealth University, in Richmond] and uva [the University of Virginia].”
Two weeks later McDonnell and his son played golf at a country club as Williams' guests and charged about $900 in fees, food, and merchandise to Williams' account. On Aug. 30 the gubernatorial couple hosted a launch event for Anatabloc at their mansion. The invitees included academic research scientists whom Star Scientific was wooing to perform clinical trials of Anatabloc. The company's news release said that senior Virginia academic scientists were “interested in studying further potentials for Anatabloc.” Maureen McDonnell and Williams placed samples of the product at each table setting. Later, she and Williams discussed Star Scientific’s proposal to “perform a study of Virginia government employees ... to determine the prevalences of autoimmune and inflammatory conditions," with some in the group getting Anatabloc.