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State inspector general launches investigation of tourism ad featuring Youngkin

Stockcars drive by as Gov. Glenn Youngkin walks on a track
Virginia Tourism Corporation CEO Rita McClenny said the “Welcome to Virginia” video came about after a March meeting between her team and the governor. (Photo: Screenshot)

Virginia’s inspector general is looking into whether the state tourism office broke state procurement rules when it signed a $268,000 contract with an ad firm connected to Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

The ad starred Youngkin and was shot and produced by Poolhouse, an agency that produced more than $1.5 million worth of campaign ads for Youngkin last year. The “Welcome to Virginia” video launched in September and is playing in airports and welcome centers across the commonwealth. It prominently features Youngkin throughout the minute-long spot.

Poolhouse had never worked with the Virginia Tourism Corporation before VTC reached out in March. VTC’s president, Rita McClenny, previously told VPM the agency, which is best known for its work for GOP candidates, was chosen in part because of its “familiarity” with Youngkin.

Kate Hourin, a spokesperson for the Office of the State Inspector General, said in an email that the office would be examining whether VTC “followed the appropriate procurement laws and policies, and whether there was any waste of government funds.”

Hourin said there was no timeline on completing the investigation, which was formally requested by top Democrats in the General Assembly.

Youngkin’s spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Representatives for VTC and Poolhouse declined to do so.

Asked earlier this month if his office had any role in recommending Poolhouse or had any conversations with VTC staff about the firm, Youngkin told reporters, “We just don’t.”

“It's part of the things that I understand as governor is — there's things I've got to pay attention to every day, and there's things that I allow great people to go run with,” Youngkin said. “And that was an area that they were of course able to run with because it's part of their mission.”

The investigation was first reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

‘The governor is making this request personally’

Emails obtained by VPM News show state tourism officials initially signed a no-bid contract with Poolhouse in early April, ignoring an internal procurement policy that required them to solicit at least six bids. McClenny argued state law gave her the authority to take that action.

The emails show Poolhouse turned around the concept for the video on April 2, less than a week after the agency first met with VTC staff on March 28 — based on a creative brief put together by VTC a week before. Both documents put Youngkin front and center of the video, with VTC’s brief saying they wanted to “leverage the likeness of the Governor in a variety of scenes around Virginia.”

VTC only reached out to other bidders after the governor’s office directly intervened and asked them to contact the Martin Agency, the ad firm behind the tourism office’s flagship campaign, in addition to Poolhouse. On May 5, Secretary of Commerce and Trade Caren Merrick wrote two VTC officials that the request came from the top.

“The Governor is making this request personally and I am happy to make the requests myself,” Merrick said.

VTC staff scrambled to meet that demand, issuing a request to bid for the Martin Agency and Poolhouse the same day. But at least one VTC official — Terry Minor — suggested it was already clear that the Martin Agency couldn’t fulfill the work.

“If we know they are declining … do we still move forward with this?” Minor asked on May 5.

Ultimately, neither the Martin Agency or another vendor — Henninger Media Services — provided a bid. The Martin Agency said in their response they didn’t have the ability to meet the project’s tight timeline, which called for pre-production to begin roughly a week after the bid was due. Henninger’s CEO, Robert Henninger, told the Times-Dispatch that the bid request “didn’t really feel like a real opportunity.”

The emails show Poolhouse continued working on the project while it was out to bid.

On May 13 — four days before Henninger’s bid was due — Laura Parisi, director of brand at Poolhouse, emailed VTC staff laying out a proposed schedule for shooting the video in late May and early June. “Wanted to touch base with you all as pre-production is coming together,” she said.

Mike McMahon, vice president of operations and finance at VTC, defended what he said was a sincere effort to solicit other bids.

“I suspect the emails you reference were just some of the creative folks following up on earlier conversations without thinking of the bid process as they were not involved in it,” he wrote in an email earlier this month.

Poolhouse ultimately signed the contract on May 18.

The video includes several shots of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. A spokesperson for the museum said they were not told the ad would feature the governor, despite the fact that the project was known internally at VTC as the “Governor’s Welcome Project.”

Alex Graf, who co-owns another shooting location — ZZQ Texas Craft Barbeque in Richmond — said she wasn’t told of Youngkin’s presence in the video until several days before the shoot.

Democrats press for investigation

Poolhouse has continued to work on Youngkin's political efforts, including an ad running pre-roll on Hulu and YouTube trumpeting tax cuts signed by the governor, as well as  another on social media touting his energy plan.

The top Democratic lawmakers in Virginia’s General Assembly — state Sen. Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax) and Del. Don Scott (D-Portsmouth) — wrote to Inspector General Michael Westfall requesting the investigation earlier this month. “This situation presents serious questions regarding the use of taxpayer dollars for political purposes,” they wrote.

Hourin, the Office of the State Inspector General spokesperson, noted that the investigation wouldn’t cover all of the questions posed by Saslaw and Scott, citing what she said was an issue of the office’s jurisdiction.

In a statement, Susan Swecker, chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia, urged the inspector general to “leave no stone unturned.”

“Virginians need to know how Glenn Youngkin’s political advertising firm was able to receive special treatment, avoid procurement laws, and end up being awarded hundreds of thousands of our taxpayer dollars to produce a campaign-style ad,” Swecker said.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.