State inspector general launches investigation into tourism ad featuring Youngkin
Virginia’s inspector general is investigating whether the state’s tourism board broke state procurement rules when it signed a $268,000 contract with an advertising company linked to Governor Glenn Youngkin.
The ad featured 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 was launched in September and is playing at airports and hospitality centers across the Commonwealth. He highlights Youngkin throughout the one-minute spot.
Poolhouse had never worked with the Virginia Tourism Corporation before VTC contacted him in March. VTC President Rita McClenny previously told VPM that the agency, which is best known for its work for GOP candidates, was chosen in part because of its “familiarity” with Youngkin.
Kate Hourin, spokeswoman for the Office of the State Inspector General, said in an email that the office would review whether VTC “has followed appropriate procurement laws and policies and whether there has been a waste of funds public”.
Hourin said there was no time frame to complete the investigation, which was officially requested by top Democrats in the General Assembly.
Youngkin’s spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment. VTC and Poolhouse representatives refused to do so.
When asked earlier this month if his office had any role in recommending Poolhouse or had any conversations with VTC staff about the company, Youngkin told reporters, “We don’t we just don’t.”
“That’s part of the things I understand as governor — there are things I have to be careful about every day, and there are things I allow great people to run with,” Youngkin said. “And that was an area that they could of course race in because it was part of their mission.”
The investigation was first reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
“The governor makes 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 that state law gave him the authority to take this action.
Emails show Poolhouse flipped 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 developed by VTC a week before. Both docs put Youngkin front and center in the video, with VTC’s brief saying they wanted to “leverage the Governor’s likeness in a variety of scenes around Virginia.”
VTC only contacted other bidders after the direct intervention of the prefecture and asked them to contact the Martin agency, the advertising agency behind the tourist office’s flagship campaign, in addition of Poolhouse. On May 5, Secretary of Commerce and Commerce Caren Merrick wrote to two VTC officials that the request came from above.
“The governor is making this request personally and I’m happy to make the requests myself,” Merrick said.
VTC staff were quick to respond to this request, launching a tender for the Martin agency and Poolhouse the same day. But at least one VTC official – Terry Minor – suggested it was already clear the Martin agency couldn’t get the job done.
“If we know they’re in decline… are we still going to go ahead with this?” Minor applied on May 5.
In the end, neither the Martin agency nor another provider – Henninger Media Services – submitted an offer. The Martin agency said in its response that it did not have the capacity to meet the project’s tight schedule, which called for pre-production to begin about a week after the submission deadline. Henninger CEO Robert Henninger told The Times-Dispatch that the request for a bid “didn’t really look like a real opportunity.”
The emails show Poolhouse continued to work on the project while it was being tendered.
On May 13 – four days before the deadline for Henninger’s bid – Laura Parisi, brand manager at Poolhouse, emailed VTC staff outlining a proposed timeline for filming the video in late May and early June. “I wanted to connect with all of you as pre-production gets underway,” she said.
Mike McMahon, vice president of operations and finance at VTC, defended what he said was a sincere effort to solicit other offers.
“I suspect the emails you are referring to were just some of the creatives who followed previous conversations without thinking about the bidding process because they weren’t involved in it,” he said. he wrote in an email earlier this month.
Poolhouse finally signed the contract on May 18.
The video includes several shots of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. A museum spokesperson said he was not told the ad would feature the Governor, despite the project being known internally at the VTC as the “Governor’s Welcome Project”.
Alex Graf, co-owner of another filming location – ZZQ Texas Craft Barbeque in Richmond – said she was not made aware of Youngkin’s presence in the video until several days before filming.
Democrats call for investigation
Poolhouse continued to work on Youngkin’s political efforts, including a preview ad on Hulu and YouTube trumpeting the governor’s signed tax cuts, as well as another on social media touting his energy plan.
Leading Democratic lawmakers in the Virginia General Assembly — State Sen. Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax) and Del. Don Scott (D-Portsmouth) – wrote to Inspector General Michael Westfall asking for the inquiry earlier this month. “This situation raises serious questions about the use of taxpayers’ money for political purposes,” they wrote.
Hourin, a spokeswoman for the state inspector general’s office, noted that the investigation would not cover all of the questions posed by Saslaw and Scott, citing what she said was a matter of office jurisdiction.
In a statement, Susan Swecker, chairwoman of the Virginia Democratic Party, urged the inspector general to “leave no stone unturned.”
“Virginians need to know how Glenn Youngkin’s political advertising company was able to get special treatment, avoid public procurement laws, and end up receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from our taxpayers to produce a campaign-style ad. “said Swecker.