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The Virginia-Israel Advisory Board
Taxpayer-Funded Israel Lobbying Inside State Government
Reconstitution from Governor's Office to the Legislature

Documents

The Virginia-Israel Advisory Board VIAB has one key difference with scores of privately funded state chambers of commerce created to foster closer economic integration between the United States and Israel while supporting the Israeli government's policy agenda. Originally created by an uncodified act in 2001, VIAB has been funded by Commonwealth of Virginia taxpayers. Its charter is to "advise the Governor on ways to improve economic and cultural links between the Commonwealth and the State of Israel, with a focus on the areas of commerce and trade, art and education, and general government." VIAB is a pilot for how Israel can quietly obtain taxpayer funding and official status for networked entities that advance Israel from within key state governments.

According to emails recently released under Virginia's Freedom of Information Act, VIAB's lofty claims of creating Virginia jobs and mutually beneficial business opportunities faced growing skepticism inside the governor's office. VIAB also uses state resources to fight the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) a nonviolent movement to pressure Israel to stop violating Palestinian human rights. VIAB faced intense scrutiny over its handling of funds by the Virginia State Attorney General. VIAB's resistance to public scrutiny led to inside lobbying in early 2018 for more "independence" from the governor. This move sounded alarm bells at another major Israel lobbying organization that VIAB's taxpayer-funded activities—if disclosed—could face public backlash.

VIAB thrived during Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe's administration (2014-2018). Among McAuliffe's most generous out of state campaign contributors were Israel boosters Haim Saban and J.B. Pritzker. McAuliffe was a regular at off-the-record "no press allowed" appearances before Israel advocacy organizations where he was encouraged to talk about "the Virginia Advisory Board and its successes." But internal emails reveal how VIAB chafed under the commonwealth's financial reigns even under McAuliffe, as well as open meeting and sunshine laws. The governor's office became so skeptical about VIAB's operations, VIAB deployed a strategy used for decades by Israel Affinity organizations in crisis such as the Jewish Agency for Israel, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA): a complete reconstitution.

The files below were released under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, 2.2-3704 on July 20, 2018. They are presented in three files, as released. For a selection of individual files with an index, visit the Virginia Coaltition for Human Rights index and material from this FOIA release. See also the IRmep report Meet VIAB: Virginia’s Taxpayer-Funded Israel Lobby.

Release #1 of 3 PDF download Release #2 of 3 PDF download) Release #3 of 3 PDF download)

Links to VCHR images of FOIA release

Date Subject
2016-07-26 VIAB reviews and discusses as "New business" at its board meeting the Governor of New York's June 5, 2016 Executive Order on BDS.
2017-03-26 VIAB Executive Director Ralph Robbins participates in AIPAC breakout panel.
2017-05-03 VIAB ignores charter provision stipulating that Office of Governor staffs the Board.
2017-05-18 VIAB Executive Director Ralph Robbins' invitation to Virginia Secretary of Commerce to participate in hiring a new VIAB director.
2017-05-24 Haymore to Robbins on the Office of the Attorney General ruling regarding naming Executive Director.
2017-07-18 Mel Chaskin reports that "the Attorney General's office has decided that the Governor should appoint the new Executive Director." Of the eight people making up the selection committee, at least 50% are from the four Virginia Jewish Community Federations. VIAB, on its own authority, exempted all of its closed deliberations on executive director selection from the Virginia Freedom of Information Act and open meeting requirements.
2017-09-07 After consultation with Stewart Petoe of the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council, Chair of VIAB board Mel Chaskin tells Carlos Hopkins, Secretary of Veterans and Defense Affairs that a Virginia Israel Foundation payment of $5,000 to outgoing VIAB Executive Director Ralph Robbins was a "farewell gift" and not unlawful "outside compensation."
2017-11-15 Secretary of Commerce and Trade voices skepticism about VIAB’s jobs and tax revenue claims.
2017-11-28 Minutes from VIAB board meeting. Items include hiring Dov Hoch as the "temporary" Israel Representative; plans and contacts for passing a reorganization of the VIAB as an independent authority.
2018-01-12 Ronald Halber, Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington since 2001, expresses concern that pushing for independent authority status will result in backlash against VIAB including increased accountability.
2018-01-14 Former VIAB Executive Director Ralph Robbins complains to Sen. Petersen and Del. Hugo that prior to Governor McAuliff, VIAB had a free-hand in naming its own director, but that "no action was taken" by the Governor's office on VIAB's proposed candidate," clarifying that "your bill corrects the situation and assures it will not reoccur."
2018-01-25 Chair of VIAB board, Mel Chaskin, outlines four changes to be incorporated in the new VIAB charter and the reasons for each.
2018-01-26 VIAB board member Aviva Frye requests appointment with First Lady to discuss Energix, the Israeli renewable energy company that Frye runs.
2018-01-28 VIAB board member Will Frank lists concerns about the language in VIAB charter legislation not being clear about funding and the independence of the VIAB.
2018-01-29 Meeting between Aviva Frye and the Deputy Secretary of Natural Resources.
2018-02-07 Vice Chair of VIAB, Charles Lessin, reiterates that the objective of the charter legislation is to authorize the Board to appoint its own director and staff.
2018-02-07 Deputy Legislative Director to Governor Lauren Schmitt, strikes the provision in the VIAB reorganization bill that agencies “shall assist the Board upon request” because VIAB will no longer be inside the Executive Branch.
2018-02-11 Deputy Legislative Director to Governor Lauren Schmitt advises Matthew Benka of MDB Strategies that the VIAB reorganization bill requires a budget amendment to receive funding under the legislative branch.
2018-02-21 Aviva Frye sets up a meeting with the Deputy Secretary of Natural Resources and representatives from Energix and Caden Energy.
2018-02-27 Matthew Benka from the lobbying firm MDB Strategies cites “Confusion on VIAB issues in the Senate" (Sen. McDougle's substitute version of HB 1297, which would reorganize VIAB under Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP)).
2018-03-14 Mel Chaskin expresses satisfaction with bill and efforts of Del. Hugo and Sen. McDougle.
2018-03-19 Lobbyist Matthew Benka from MDB Strategies, noting that the Senate and House have agreed to jointly appoint the VIAB director in the legislation that reorganizes VIAB under the legislative branch, requests help from Michael Jay and Jason Powell from the House Appropriations Committee to secure funding for VIAB.
2018-03-25 Lobbyist Matthew Benka from MDB Strategies invites Lauren Schmitt, Deputy Legislative Director to the Governor, to VIAB board meeting to express their thanks to her and the governor.
2018-03-26 Lauren Schmitt, Deputy Legislative Director, declines invitation to visit VIAB.
2018-05-25 Lauren Schmitt, Deputy Legislative Director, announces her resignation and return to the lobbying firm Commonwealth Strategy Group. (Gov. Northam’s first nominee, Esther Lee, resigns after three months, to be replaced by Brian Ball.)
2018-05-27 VIAB Chair Mel Chaskin urges Schmitt to get someone from the Secretary of Commerce and Trade to approve funding for now-VIAB-Executive-Director, Dov Hoch's trip to Israel.

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