THE ISRAEL LOBBY ENTERS STATE GOVERNMENT

RISE OF THE VIRGINIA ISRAEL ADVISORY BOARD

By Grant F. Smith

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4

VIAB Moves from the Governor’s Office to the State Legislature

We want to clarify to the best of our ability that the Board will appoint ALL staff including the Executive Director, that issue is the impetus for the bill. VIAB Vice Chairman Charles Lessin

In 2017 VIAB’s leadership desired complete autonomy to choose VIAB’s new executive director, rather than have one appointed by the governor. The actions it undertook to achieve that goal revealed the true power of the organization. Early in 2017, the term of Executive Director Ralph Robbins was winding down after nearly 17 years of service. Among his last public appearances was a presentation at a panel called “Strengthening U.S.-Israel Economic Ties” at the annual AIPAC conference in Washington. He spoke[1] alongside Josh Kram of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Bill Lane, former executive of Caterpillar. The full topic of the panel discussion was according to the program:

Despite the best efforts of the BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] movement,  US-Israel economic ties continue to deepen. Learn how leading actors enhance the economic relations between the countries and fight back on international efforts to politicize doing business in Israel.

Robbins founded the American medical Center in Israel, before selling it the year 2000 and joining VIAB as executive director. At the point of his departure from VIAB, countering BDS was a hot topic at board meetings. In July of the previous year, VIAB met in the State Capitol to study an executive order issued by the governor of New York that would halt all state investments or state money flowing into entities engaged in Israel boycotts.[2] Making sure its next executive director had an effective anti-BDS profile was key to VIAB’s decision to hire Dov Hoch.

2017 initiative to appoint a new executive director

Although under existing statute, VIAB’s executive director could only be appointed by the governor, VIAB leadership wanted to move quickly. VIAB posted a job vacancy notice. Robbins informed Todd Haymore, Virginia Secretary of Commerce in the Governor’s Office, that VIAB board members Mel Chaskin, Charles Lessin  and Jeff Brooks planned to review applications, with interviews taking place on June 17, 2017. A new executive director would be in place by August 1.

Haymore’s  response was a slap in VIAB’s face. On May 23 he told Robbins that, while the governor’s office was appreciative of the effort, it was the Governor’s sole prerogative to determine among candidates who would be the next executive director of VIAB. As if to add insult to injury, Haymore attached a legal opinion backing up the governor’s prerogative citing Virginia code from Deputy Attorney General John Daniel.[3]

The Virginia gubernatorial election was approaching on November 7, 2017. Democratic Party incumbent Terry McAuliffe, who had done so much for VIAB, including traveling with delegations to VIAB projects in Virginia and Israel, was ineligible to run for reelection. It may be that McAuliffe felt the pressure was now off, and that it was time to reassert gubernatorial control over the wildly independent VIAB.

Chairman Mel Chaskin, glumly noted in a July 18, 2017 board meeting that since the executive director was staff, that it was in fact the prerogative of the governor to approve any hire. A “top choice” candidate had already been identified, so now all VIAB had to do was get an official stamp of approval.[4]

But VIAB was losing fans in the Governor’s office. Now part of a lame duck administration and personally due to leave by January of 2018, Haymore  received a November 14 email with VIAB’s annual report sent from Mel Chaskin’s staff at military contractor Vanguard Research. Haymore forwarded it to other staff in the Governor’s office noting:

I can’t argue with the short annual report where they stated they helped create 127 jobs/$426k tax dollars; however, the annual report is likely the most inflated without merit that I’ve seen in my decade here.[5]

On November 28, Chaskin told assembled VIAB board members that “while waiting for the Governor’s Office to approve VIAB’s new Executive Director, we are bringing on a temporary part/time hire our Israel Representative.”[6] This “temporary” hire would immediately be contracted for $4,300 per month through February 2018. Chaskin justified the hire on the basis of McAuliffe’s deciding that although three candidates had been sent for the governor’s approval, VIAB was now leaving the decision to incoming governor Ralph Northam. But major change was afoot.

VIAB “proposes changes” to its constitution

Chuck Lessin and Mel Chaskin said they were working on “some proposed changes to the VIAB charter and the possibility of a bill introduction to the Virginia legislature to execute these changes.” Already in the month of November, legislation for a major reorganization of VIAB had been pre-filed[7] and was being readied for scrutiny by stakeholders. Chaskin was sure that “whatever bill is proposed will have bipartisan support of the Virginia legislature and we will make sure we have support of the JCRCs.”

Chaskin, promised VIAB board members that he would send the new VIAB charter, any proposed changes and a link to the bill for their review. He added:

Don Ferguson, our representative from the Virginia Attorney General’s Office, will also assist. The VIAB budget will not be affected by any changes to the charter.[8]

As noted in the previous chapter, it was Ferguson who signed off on Chuck Lessin’s formation of Appalachian Biofuels LLC and receipt of state funding. VIAB had other victories overcoming conflict of interest roadblocks in Virginia. The state prohibited any state employee from accepting money for services performed within the scope of official duties. Nevertheless, VIAB arranged a $5,000 bonus to outgoing director Ralph Robbins paid from a tax exempt charity called the Virginia Israel Foundation. After pushback from the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Advisory Council, VIAB argued that the check was a “gift” and not a bonus for work performed. The Virginia Conflict of Interest and Advisory Council caved and, in the end, accepted the argument.[9]

Representative Tim Hugo pre-filed House Bill 1287 in January of 2018. Not all of the Federation JCRC’s were comfortable with Chaskin and Lessin’s legislative attempt to gain more power and independence as an authority. Under their proposed legislation, submitted by Hugo,  VIAB was to be renamed the Virginia Israel Advisory Authority. This change would have moved the new VIAA under the Secretary of Administration in the executive branch. Fellow authorities would have been entities such as the “Innovative Technology Authority” and the Virginia Port Authority.[10] Senator Chap Petersen, who had worked, but failed, to set up a Virginia Korea Advisory Board in 2014 was approached by a constituent and consented to filing a companion bill in the Senate (SB15) in January.

On January 12, 2018, Ronald Halber, Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington wrote Chaskin, that moving VIAB out of the Governor’s office to become an independent authority was going too far:

As you know, the Executive Committee of our JCRC met on Wednesday evening to discuss SB15 [the draft legislation]. After a lengthy discussion, the Committee decided that it is not able to support the bill. Committee members expressed a number of serious reservations about the practical effects of establishing VIAB as an independent authority.

Concern [sic] that VIAB will not have the same support from the Governor’s office to help in advocating for its budget and will lose existing support and leverage as other agencies and state priorities compete for budget appropriations.

Concern [sic] that the request to grant Virginia’s Israel development activities special status, status that no other economic development group enjoys, may draw negative attention to VIAB and result in VIAB’s dissolution and absorption into Virginia’s greater economic development activities.

Concern about what accountability measure will be put in place other than issuance of an annual report.

We understand that you and Chuck have legitimate concerns related to VIAB’s current structure and the difficulty in hiring an executive director, but we do not believe that this bill provides the appropriate remedy. We would be open to working on a solution together.[11]

But Ralph Robbins,  writing near simultaneously as VIAB Executive Director Emeritus, told Delegates Tim Hugo and Chap Petersen that the governor’s delays on rubber stamping VIAB’s inside candidate was unprecedented and more than warranted VIAB becoming an independent authority.[12]

VIAB board member Will Franks, a gubernatorial appointee from Henrico serving from 2015-2018 thought the legislation was flawed. There was no requirement the governor provide office space. The bill said the authority would henceforth control staff, but Frank questioned whether a $215,184 budget would cover the expense.[13]

Charles Lessin worked with Amigo Wade of the Division of Legislative Services and outside lobbyist Matthew Benka of MDB Strategies to put House Bill (1297) into better shape. Matt Benka was a logical choice and probably did the lobbying work for free. That is because he was also the paid lobbyist for Caden Energix, Oran Safety Glass, and UBQ as well as many of Lessin’s gambling interests.[14] But the House bill was also highly flawed in VIAB’s view. It had the legislature’s Joint Rules Committee appointing VIAB’s executive director.[15] On February 7, Lessin  gruffly insisted that:

We want to clarify to the best of our ability that the Board will appoint ALL staff including the Executive Director, that issue is the impetus for the bill. Can we add to line 41, a sentence that reads; All Staff members shall be appointed by the board.

But other flaws were found in the legislation. Lauren Schmitt, outgoing Deputy Legislative Director in the governor’s office advised lobbyist Matt Benka and a staffer for Delegate Tim Hugo that:

…the funds budgeted for the Board in the Executive Department have to be transferred to the legislative Department…not sure how it works at this point in the process, but we’ll need to move quickly…can Delegate Hugo talk to Chairman Jones and find out the appropriate next steps?[16]

On February 27, Matt Benka sounded an alarm bell, saying:

…unfortunately, there has been a bit of confusion on VIAB issues in the Senate. Had a long conversation with Senator [Frank] Ruff this afternoon, Hugo and Senate staff to try to get everyone back on the same page.[17]

Senator Ryan McDougle appeared to have “gone rogue” by issuing a February 28 substitute amendment on 1297 which would have reorganized VIAB under the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, which would have had the power to designate VIAB’s executive director “from existing authority staff.”[18] In other words, the exact opposite of what VIAB was attempting to achieve. Chap Petersen, who had sponsored SB15, had already been approached by yet another constituent, and was convinced to ask to strike his own Senate bill (SB15) on January 9.

House Bill 1297

Somehow, McDougle was corralled back into VIAB’s corner. Kim Clark of Vanguard Research on March 14 forwarded a message from Mel Chaskin that VIAB had gotten what it wanted in passage of modified House Bill 1297.[19] The governor’s appointees to VIAB’s board were reduced to only five, with House and Senate appointing ten each. Jewish federations could appoint four board members (that had to live in Virginia) while the Secretary of Commerce and Trade and the Secretary of Education could each appoint one board member for a total of two. Chaskin was ecstatic it squeezed through:

We were the very last action of both the house and senate. They both waited 45 minutes to adjourn! Hugo and McDougle did us a huge favor by doing this.[20]

On March 19, Matt Benka also announced passage of a modified House Bill 1297 that moved VIAB (and its budgeted $215,000 in funding) out of the governor’s office and invited legislators to meet with Chaskin, and Lessin  to familiarize themselves with VIAB initiatives. Lauren Schmitt declined invitations to celebrate VIAB’s victory and on May 25, tendered her resignation to leave the office of the governor for the lobbying firm Commonwealth Strategy Group. Before her scheduled departure, Mel Chaskin, had one final favor to ask of his friend in the governor’s office:

I know you are leaving, but I would like to ask you to try and get someone from the Secretary of Commerce and Trade to send the approval for Dov’s trip in the Middle of May. You told me it was approved but Dennis Johnson [Fiscal Director of the Commonwealth of Virginia] has not been told. Good luck in your new job.[21]

Dov Hoch,  traveling through Virginia via Israel, could now finally, nearly a year later than planned, assume his fulltime position as VIAB’s executive director.

VIAB’s 2018 reconstitution under the legislature depended on concentrated pressure exerted by Jewish federations. This much was admitted in 2019 by Nathan Shor, past president of the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond (and VIAB director 2016-2018) in a joint event with Dov Hoch:

The bigger question is here, because we do change governors for sure every 4 years. So, by changing administrations we have got agencies where the governor and the staff don’t understand us, this is not a good rapport. We did have that battle when Ralph retired. VIAB won that battle with the help of all the Federations of Jews in the community. But, they wanted to make us state appointees…It would have been a worthless job at that point, because then you’re turning over every four years, and then why point out a big donor who may have no connection to Israel, you have got to have this connection, you’ve got to be able to pick up the phone like Ralph did, like Dov does, to get to those right decision makers. So, more importantly, when we changed administrations here, VIAB has no concern whether we’re going to change executive directors.[22]

From the outside, Dov Hoch,  who was temporarily put on salary, appears all along to have been the inside candidate mostly because he was committed to addressing outgoing Executive Director Ralph Robbin’s concerns about the BDS movement.

The BDS movement emerged from a bloody—and lopsided in terms of casualties— wave of violence between Palestinians and Israel’s military in 2002. A group of Palestinian academics published a call for boycott the next year and in 2004 a group called the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel put out its formal appeal.  Signatories had limited access to books and were under severe Israeli travel restrictions. Their call for action charged that the Israeli occupation had so severely curtailed the academic freedom of Palestinian colleges and universities that calling for a global censure against Israel on their behalf was the only nonviolent means to confront injustice.

Responding to a 2012 BDS conference at the University of Pennsylvania, Dov Hoch  (a 1986 graduate and then president of the Penn Club of Israel) issued a mocking, boastful call for pro-Palestinian attendees to avail themselves of massive subsidies from the private and public sector and build something, rather than calling attention to Israeli’s treatment of Palestinians:

So perhaps it might make sense to change the BDS mindset to one of investment and genuine nation-building activities. If BDS’s conviction remain one of divestment; one of burning your neighbor’s house despite the fact you live in connected structures and all-the-more linked economies, then to be most effective conference goers should stop using Microsoft and Google products as well; both companies have several research and development centers in Israel, as do most cellular handset manufacturers. And please throw out your iPhones — Apple just bought an Israeli company.[23]

But although VIAB mostly doesn’t publicly mention it, a major reason behind its drive to partner Israeli and U.S. companies within the United States and beyond is the threat posed by the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement. By licensing technology, operating secret shell companies where only a few insiders know the beneficial owners, and joint venturing with larger U.S. companies, Israeli companies can make it more difficult for activists to target them to change the Israeli government’s behavior. It is the reason Dov Hoch has returned to the United States to work in the Pocahontas building in Richmond. But anti-BDS work in Virginia had already begun before his arrival.

In March of 2016[24] the Virginia General Assembly passed resolution HJ 177 the “anti-Israel boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Condemnation” which claimed that the BDS movement was hampering peace and preventing negotiations while claiming boycotts were not a legitimate accountability tactic. BDS by that time had grown into a call for economically boycotting Israel over its human rights record, more specifically the military occupation of Palestinian territories and mistreatment of Palestinians.

VIAB’s annual budget is only a couple hundred thousand per year. It therefore does not directly provide tax holidays, economic development grants, or subsidize job training for Israeli companies all while fighting BDS.  However, VIAB does work to identify, develop and steer such corporate subsidies to Israeli companies by lobbying fellow state agencies and the state legislature from within government. We examine its tactics in the chapters about specific companies VIAB either brought, or is bringing, to Virginia.

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[2]Robbins, Ralph, March 24, 2017, email “VIAB Board Material for March 30th meeting and information about VIAB and AIPAC” https://vchr.org/viab_foia_responses/07262016.html

[3] Haymore, Todd, Tuesday, May 23, 2017, email “RE: Retirement and Replacement” https://vchr.org/viab_foia_responses/05242017.html

[4] VIAB Board of Director’s Meeting, July 18, 2017, “Mel Chaskin reports on AG’s decision that the governor should appoint VIAB’s executive director,” https://vchr.org/viab_foia_responses/07182017.html

[5] Haymore, Todd, November 15, 2017 email, “Annual Report Memo 2017” https://vchr.org/viab_foia_responses/11152017.html

[6] VIAB Board of Directors Meeting, November 28, 2017, “Discussing Dov Hoch hire and VIAB reorganization.” https://vchr.org/viab_foia_responses/11282017.html

[7] A pre-filed bill is submitted for introduction and first reading before the legislative session begins. Pre-filed bills are then introduced on the very first day of the legislative session.

[8] VIAB Board of Directors Meeting, November 28, 2017, “Discussing Dov Hoch hire and VIAB reorganization.” https://vchr.org/viab_foia_responses/11282017.html

[9] Mel Chaskin, VIAB, email, September 7, 2017, “Ralph’s Gift.” https://vchr.org/viab_foia_responses/09072017.html

[11] Ronald Halber, Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, email, January 12, 2018, https://vchr.org/viab_foia_responses/01122018.html

[12] Ralph Robbins, Executive Director Emeritus, VIAB, letter to Tim Hugo and Chap Petersen, January 14, 2018 https://vchr.org/viab_foia_responses/01142018.html

[13] Frank, Will, VIAB board member, January 28, 2018 email to Mel Chaskin about the VIAB Charter Legislation, copied to over 30 VIAB board members, Federation and JCRC community members. https://vchr.org/viab_foia_responses/01282018.html

[14] Benka, Matthew D., lobbyist profile by the Virginia Public Access Project https://www.vpap.org/lobbying/lobbyist/93577-matthew-d-benka/

[15] HB 1297 Virginia-Israel Advisory Board; reorganizes as Virginia-Israel Advisory Authority, 2018 legislative session, passed https://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?181+sum+HB1297

[16] Schmitt, Lauren, email to Matthew Benka and Dean Goodson, February 11, 2018. https://vchr.org/viab_foia_responses/02112018.html

[17] Benka, Matthew, email to Lauren Schmitt copied to Mel Chaskin and Charles Lessin, February 27, 2018. https://vchr.org/viab_foia_responses/02272018.html

[18] House Bill No. 1297 Amendment in the Nature of a Substitute, 2018 session http://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?181+ful+HB1297S1

[19] Chaskin, Mel, message in a forwarded email to VIAB members, March 14, 2018 https://vchr.org/viab_foia_responses/03142018.html

[20] Chaskin, Mel, message in a forwarded email to VIAB members, March 14, 2018 https://vchr.org/viab_foia_responses/03142018.htmlhttps://vchr.org/viab_foia_responses/03142018.html

[21] Chaskin, Mel, email to Lauren Schmitt, May 27, 2018. https://vchr.org/viab_foia_responses/05272018.html

[22] Hoch, Dov, “What VIAB Does and How it Benefits Virginia,” speech at the Weinstein Jewish Community Center, Richmond, VA, April 4, 2019. Introduction and remarks by former president of the Jewish Federation of Richmond Nathan Shor

[23] Hoch, Dov, February 2, 2012, “Why we should invest, not divest,” The Daily Pennsylvanian, https://www.thedp.com/article/2012/02/4f28ebda5c0f0

[24] HJ 177 Anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS); condemnation, 2016 Virginia legislative session, passed https://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?161+sum+HJ177