Democrats question $268,000 state contract for Youngkin’s political ad creator

RICHMOND — Leading Virginia Democrats on Thursday urged the state inspector general to investigate how Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s political ad creator landed a $268,000 state contract to make a one-minute tour video.

Poolhouse, a Richmond-based Republican media company that made $1.5 million in campaign ads for Youngkin last year, was the only vendor to bid for the contract with Virginia Tourism Corp. (VTC), a public authority. funded by taxpayers.

The firm, which has continued to work with Youngkin as he explores a possible 2024 presidential bid, appeared to have an inside tip on the opportunity, according to a report this week from Virginia Public Media and the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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The VTC initially offered the contract to Poolhouse without soliciting bids from other providers, VTC President Rita McClenny confirmed to The Washington Post on Thursday. The VTC then gave two competitors a chance to compete for the job, but with tight deadlines dictated by a desire to release the video before Labor Day. In the end, only Poolhouse submitted an offer.

The VTC is exempt from the state’s procurement rules, but the Poolhouse deal goes against the authority’s internal policies, which require soliciting at least six bids for services worth more than $100,000, McClenny acknowledged. She said that she has the authority to circumvent the policies.

In their letter to Inspector General Michael C. Westfall, top Democrats in the state House and Senate suggested that the offer had been directed at Poolhouse and that the video amounts to a campaign ad for Youngkin because he is featured prominently in it. . Since late summer, the ad has been rotating on screens at state airports and rest stops.

“The actions of Governor Youngkin and the VTC are deeply concerning and raise serious questions about the use of state tax dollars for campaign purposes and the potential waste, fraud or abuse of taxpayer money,” said Majority Leader of the Senate, Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax). and House Minority Leader Don L. Scott Jr. (D-Portsmouth), said in the letter.

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Youngkin’s spokesman, Rob Damschen, said in an email that the governor was “thrilled to participate in highlighting the Commonwealth’s top attractions and welcoming tourists to our airports and visitor centers across the state.” He referred questions about the fix to the VTC.

McClenny said it’s not unusual for Virginia governors to appear in promotional videos for the state, noting that Democrat Terry McAuliffe appeared in one that was available online to promote Oyster Month.

The video with Youngkin is likely to get a larger audience because it is played repeatedly at the state’s nine commercial airports, including Dulles International and Reagan National. McClenny said the video, narrated by Youngkin and showing him at a NASCAR track in Richmond, will not be used out of state.

“There is no media buying behind this,” he said. “Airports broadcast it pro bono.”

Will Ritter, Poolhouse co-founder and CEO, issued a written statement that did not address questions about the acquisition process. He said the firm was “thrilled to partner with the Virginia Tourism Corporation to show off the state we love and call home. We were thrilled to win the offer and get the chance to feature our favorite people and places in the ‘Welcome to Virginia’ campaign. We look forward to more opportunities to do top-notch creative work for Virginia.”

Matt Wolking, Youngkin’s strategist at the political consultancy Axiom defended the arrangement on Twitter, noting that McClenny donated $1,000 to McAuliffe’s comeback campaign attempt against Youngkin last year. McClenny was first appointed to the job under McAuliffe’s predecessor, Republican Governor Robert F. McDonnell, and continued to serve under McAuliffe and Democrat Ralph Northam. She donated $500 to McDonnell’s 2009 campaign.

“So [Scott’s] The big conspiracy theory is that the Democrat who donated to Terry McAuliffe’s anti-Youngkin campaign a year ago…is now in secret collusion to hijack Youngkin’s airport ads? working tweeted.

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The idea for the video grew out of a meeting between VTC staff and Youngkin in March, when the governor and first lady Suzanne Youngkin offered to support their mission in any way they could, McClenny said in an interview with The Post on Thursday.

Meeting afterwards, the VTC staff came up with the idea of ​​introducing the governor in a video that would introduce Virginia to the millions of travelers who pass through Dulles and Reagan, many of them unaware that those airports are in the Commonwealth.

“Arriving at Dulles, the pilot says, ‘Welcome to Washington,’” he said. “The ticket says, ‘Washington.’ ”

McClenny said it was his idea to approach Poolhouse to produce the video under a non-compete contract that prohibited the authority from inviting other companies to bid.

Poolhouse had never worked for a state entity, but McClenny said he thought highly of the company’s work. He also said the company’s “familiarity” with Youngkin would make the company more “efficient,” amounting to a “shortcut” for a project he wanted completed in time to reach late-summer commuters.

“That was my idea, Rita McClenny, because they are a Virginia company, they produce great content, and I knew, obviously, that they were familiar with the governor,” she said.

The VTC backed away from that no-bid approach after the governor’s office raised concerns about the appearance that would create, he said.

On May 5, VTC invited Poolhouse and a second Richmond firm, Martin Agency, to bid for the project. Poolhouse submitted its offer that day. The Martin Agency, which as VTC’s agency of record was already busy with a “flagship campaign” set to launch in April, responded on May 9 that it couldn’t meet the strict deadlines required, McClenny said.

The next day, VTC invited Henninger Media Services to bid by May 17. Henninger did not respond, McClenny said.

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