By Paige Winfield Cunningham
More than $630,000 intended to create jobs and help tobacco farmers in rural regions of Virginia has been spent on museum exhibits and thermal pane windows.
The Robert Russa Moton Museum in Farmsville, a center that preserves the history of civil rights in Virginia education, has in recent years received two grants from the Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission — a 31-member panel that awards Virginia’s portion of a $206 billion settlement paid by the nation’s four largest tobacco companies.
State law says the money is supposed to provide payments to tobacco farmers and revitalize tobacco dependent communities. But the recent sentencing of former finance secretary John Forbes — who admitted to stealing $4 million from the fund — is raising questions of whether commission members are using the money as intended.
In 2008, the Moton Museum spent a $116,000 grant on windows that officials said offered better insulation for protecting artifacts in the museum, which was founded to preserve the history of civil rights in Virginia education.
One year later, the museum was awarded $520,000 to design exhibits for a permanent exhibition commemorating a 1951 student strike for civil rights that took place at the former high school that now houses the museum.
A news release issued by the museum at the time the grant was award said state Sen. Frank Ruff and former Del. Clarke Hogan, both on the commission at the time, helped to secure the funds. But now, both legislators are distancing themselves from the awards.
Ruff, a Southside Republican, said he didn’t play a role in procuring the grant for the museum.
“I was not involved,” Ruff said. “I try to not get too involved in those who are close to me.”
But at the time, he called the grant “extremely important,” according to the news release. “The funds from the Tobacco Commission will be used to attract additional dollars to expand the vision of the Moton Board as they move forward,” he said, in the release.
Now, Ruff says that by improving the museum, the grant potentially boosted tourism and thus aided the local economy — albeit indirectly. Still, he admits the linkage could be stronger.
“It didn’t have the direct impact of creating jobs,” said Ruff, who is currently the commission’s vice-chairman. “If you put things on a scale of 1-to-100, it wouldn’t be the highest.”
Hogan declined to comment on the grant and anything else related to the commission. The Halifax Republican, who resigned from the commission last year after he announced he would not seek re-election, was recently criticized by House Minority Leader Ward Armstrong for his role in rejecting a proposed audit of the commission.
In January 2009, a House subcommittee killed a measure offered by Armstrong that would have called for the tobacco commission to be audited by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission. Hogan spiked the audit, Armstrong said.
“He was very vocal in saying they didn’t need that kind of oversight, and the Republican leadership went along with that,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong proposed the audit after receiving a telephone call from former Gov. Gerry Baliles, who had led the panel to examine the commission’s structure and operations.
After the panel criticized the commission for handing out too much money for smaller projects and not spending enough on education, infrastructure and regional needs, Baliles seemed worried about how the commission was being run, Armstrong said.
JLARC is expected to issue to a report on the commission next summer. But annual performance audits should have been taking place a long time ago, according to Armstrong, who said he worries money isn’t being spent wisely.
The commission has distributed nearly $1 billion since its 1999 inception, including more than 1,300 grants awarded in Virginia’s tobacco region.
“Money is being handed out to friends and acquaintances (of the board), and I don’t know how much is being translated to jobs,” Armstrong said.