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The Virginia-Israel Advisory Board:
Taxpayer funds for secret Israeli business projects in Virginia - "Project Jonah"

In the news, "Something's Fishy About AquaMaof's 'Project Jonah' in Virginia


The taxpayer-funded Virginia-Israel Advisory Board (VIAB) is secretive when it comes to its portfolio of projects designed to benefit Israeli corporations, exporters and investors seeking high return opportunities in Virginia. There is good reason for that. Thanks to a problematic 1985 bilateral US-Israel trade deal, Virginia already has a half-billion dollar annual trade deficit with Israel. Nearly all VIAB projects count on massive state and federal grants and loans as well as other U.S. support to establish Israeli ventures. Many of those Israeli ventures could displace home-grown Virginia businesses, while increasing Virginia's trade deficit with Israel. VIAB's key assumption is that—irrespective of Israel's human rights record—Israeli investments are to receive unquestioned, preferential treatment and be fast tracked in Virginia..

Years ago VIAB claimed in meeting minutes that Project Jonah had secured a $10 million grant. In reality it was a proposed low-interest loan from the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority. The loan carried many covenants and an original deadline of 12/31/2014, subsequently extended every year to 12/31/2019. The loan was conditional on meeting certain benchmarks including over a hundred million in matching private funds. Other commitments to fund Project Jonah included a $1.0 million tax abatement from Tazewell County which also signed on to a $1.5 million grant from the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission for "planning" that has already been paid out. The grant must be repaid if its performance agreement conditions are not met. Virginia Tech was also involved in securing $500,000 from federal and local sources for Project Jonah R&D. The Israeli company behind "Project Jonah" is AquaMaof Technologies which appears to include the Virginia project in its claimed $230 million in closed deals around the world.

VFOIA documents about Project Jonah

Entity Release Date Subject
Virginia Israel Advisory Board 05/23/2019 VIAB chairman and FOIA disclosure officer Mel Chaskin responds to a VFOIA request  to unmask Israeli companies behind state investment projects. "The records you seek contain proprietary information provided by private businesses to the VIAB pursuant to a promise of confidentiality and are used by the VIAB for business, trade and tourism development and retention. As such, the requested records are exempt from the mandatory disclosure provisions of FOIA and will not be produced."
Virginia Israel Advisory Board 05/09/2019 VFOIA request for a copy of the econometric model substantiating VIAB claims that "The VIAB contributed to creating 177 new jobs last year, many in established companies that will continue to add jobs next year. Israeli companies’ tax contribution to the Virginia Treasury exceeded 25 times VIAB’s budget in 2018, rendering a 550% ROI over the terms of the past four Governors."

VIAB chairman and FOIA disclosure officer Mel Chaskin responds that "the VIAB has no existing documents responsive to your request."
Auditor of Public Accounts 05/21/2019 In 2014, VIAB self reported a "clean bill of health" from an annual audit, claiming "the State Auditor of Public Accounts completed its Audit for FY2014. Their findings are as follows: Proper recording and reporting of all transactions, in all material respects, in the Commonwealth Accounting and Reporting System. No matters involving internal control and its operation necessary to bring to management’s attention; No instances of noncompliance with applicable laws and regulations or other matters that are required to be reported."

In fact, the actual report from the State Auditor of Public Accounts uncovered numerous abuses and non-compliance with travel policies, reporting "there were several trips in which proper authorization was not obtained in the period under audit." The audit mandates additional "specific travel policies...that apply to the Board [VIAB]."
Auditor of Public Accounts 06/19/2019 (Excel) 2014 audit records of the Virginia Israel Advisory Board.
Virginia Economic Development Partnership 06/21/2019 VFOIA to the Virginia Economic Development Partnership about partnerships and coordination with VIAB. Sandra Jones McNinch, General Counsel responds, "The requested records do not exist. In the furtherance of our operations, VEDP works with hundreds of localities, regions, state agencies, entities and institutions, and private sector partners, including the VIAB. We do not generally have documentation with these other entities formalizing our partnerships, coordination or common work."
Division of Selected Agency Support Services 07/15/2019 Because of past abuses, VIAB executives were required to fill out detailed written requests to obtain approval for travel expenses. VFOIA for specific travel policies to the [VIAB] board following  that were mandated on page 2 of the 2014 Auditor of Public Accounts audit of the Division of Selected Agency Support Services (Final report online at http://www.apa.virginia.gov/reports/DSAS2014.pdf)

DSASS release of VIAB travel requirements and a sample voucher submitted by Ralph Robbins.

After VIAB reconstituted itself from the Office of the Governor to the state legislature in 2018, it was no longer subject to special policies implemented under the office of the governor .
Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission 07/26/2019a VFOIA request for grant application, grant agreement, detailed budget and grant reports on a $1.5 million grant to develop "Project Jonah" in Tazewell County.

The released grant application proposes to create 268 new fish farm jobs with an average annual wage of $48,800, real estate purchases of $1.5 million, $39 million in real estate improvements, placement of $93 million in equipment with a total capital investment of $134 million. In order to earn the grant, the company was to have met its employment obligations no later than three years after the base quarter, ending December 13, 2013. (December 12, 2016.)

The grant was conditional on submission of a deed of trust (dated June, 2015 recorded in the Tazewell County Circuit Court Clerks office in Deed Book 2015, page 09537) to secure the company's performance of the agreement.
  07/26/2019b A September 17, 2015 performance agreement between the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, County of Tazewell and Dominion Aquaculture LLC for $1.5 million. The grant must be repaid if the fish farm fails to employ at least 431 people with a quarterly payroll of $5.3 million, that taxable assets be located in the county with a value of $134 million within 36 months after the end of the base quarter. "Said Deed of Trust shall provide that Company is in default if Company has not performed at least 10% of its taxable asset investment as described in paragraph 4 of The Agreement on or before January 1, 2017." AquaMaof International LTD unconditionally guarantees "any and all obligations of every nature owing by Dominion Aquaculture, LLC. Signed by David Hazut, CEO AquaMaof International LTD.

Lala Korall listed as contact at Dominion Aquaculture, LLC is also President of I-Deals LLC, which received $11,788.82 from VIAB in 2014 for "Management Services."

Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission VFOIA coordinator clarified by email that "You also requested a budget and grant reports, however, since this project was funded through our Tobacco Region Opportunity Fund (TROF) program we do not have these items. While most of our programs are administered on a reimbursement basis, and thus do generate the budgets and reports you are seeking, TROF is our only program in which funds may be disbursed for a project in advance at the request of the grantee and does not generate those documents. In this case the grantee (Tazewell) did indeed decide to receive the funds up front with a security agreement signed prior to disbursement.

TROF funds are granted to the locality, in this case Tazewell, to act as an incentive for a specific project and are not granted directly to the company in question. At the end of the agreed upon project period, if all agreed upon performance metrics have been met the grant is closed with no further action. If, however, metrics have not been met in whole or in part the Commission recoups funds from the company and/or the locality as necessary. In short, the Commission's interests are protected by the locality the grant was awarded to."
Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority 7/31/2019 December 19, 2013 VCEDA letter to David Hazut, CEO of Ecosus Virginia, LLC (housed at the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center) announcing a loan earmark of up to $10 million subject to Project Jonah obtaining $137 million in matching funds. Earmark expiration date of December 13, 2014. Meeting minutes on another project forgive a $2 million loan balance by converting it to a grant.

November 20, 2014 letter to Yoav Dagan President of Ecosus Virginia, LLC extending expiration date of loan fund earmark until December 31, 2015. Meeting minutes state there is no change in terms.

October 15, 2015 VCEDA letter to John H. Schiering, COO of Dominion Aquaculture LLC resetting expiration date to December 31, 2016. VCEDA moves into closed session on a Project Jonah request, according to meeting minutes. Minutes document no change in earmark terms.

December 15, 2016 VCEDA letter to John H. Schiering, COO of Dominion Aquaculture LLC resetting expiration date to June 30, 2017. VCEDA moves into closed session on a Project Jonah request, according to meeting minutes. Minutes document no change in earmark terms.

June 15, 2017 VCEDA letter to John H. Schiering, COO of Dominion Aquaculture LLC resetting expiration date to December 31, 2017. VCEDA moves into closed session on a Project Jonah request, according to meeting minutes. Minutes document no change in earmark terms.

Confidential  August 22, 2017 VCEDA letter to John H. Schiering, COO of Dominion Aquaculture LLC, and Lala Korall, Vice President resetting expiration date to December 31, 2017. VCEDA letter changes the terms of the loan to 84 consecutive monthly payments of , with the first beginning three years after the promissory note is signed. states that if Project Jonah has at least 200 full-time employees with an average annual wage of $50,000 per year, that 8% of the outstanding loan balance will be forgiven and converted into a grant starting in year 4.Private matching funds reduced to $110 million, with at least $25 million expended in private funds on site development before the loan is approved and the Virginia Economic Development Partnership issues a letter supporting the project. Loan closing fee reduced to one-half percent. Interest rate on the loan set to 0% until year 3 and 2.125% thereafter. . ..  VCEDA moved into closed session to reconfigure Project Jonah loan, according to meeting minutes.

Confidential  November 19, 2018 VCEDA letter to John H. Schiering, COO of Dominion Aquaculture LLC, and Lala Korall, Vice President resetting expiration date to December 31, 2019. Restates need for copy of Southwest Virginia Community College workforce and development training MOU, details on collateral, written evidence of $110 million in private funds, support letter from VEDP and other terms.

October 18, 2018 VCEDA letter to John H. Schiering, COO of Dominion Aquaculture LLC, and Lala Korall, Vice President resetting expiration date to December 31, 2019.
Southwest Virginia Community College MOU to train Project Jonah workers. 08/22/2019 Memorandum of Understanding for Southwest Virginia Community College (SWCC) and Dominion Aquaculture LLC for workforce development to be paid for by the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority.
Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission 08/06/2019 Name change from Ecosus Virginia LLC to Dominion Aquaculture, LLC
Email 1 On April 1, 2019, Andres Sorel certifies to the Tobacco Commission that Tazewell County has adequate security on Project Jonah. "There have been a lot of starts and stops with this project." 8F named as Aquamaof's investor, and Lala Korall as the company's "Public Fundraising Director."
Email 2 On Nov ember 27, 2018 confirmation from Tazewell County Attorney that "they have purchased one site and purchased an option on a second site...I do not want them [AquaMaof] to be able to accuse us based on how we presented it.[ financing and progress.]"
Email 3 Tazewell County Attorney email on status of Project Jonah land purchases and investment from 8F. Dominion Aquaculture on December 1, 2017 confirms purchase contract on land adjacent to Southwestern Community College property under a fall purchase contract.
Email 4 09/07/2019 status update from John Schiering, COO of Dominion Aquaculture. Letter from Karim Ghannam, CEO of 8f Asset Management of Singapore on their proposed investment in Dominion Aquaculture, LLC. 8/17/2017 letter from Tazwell County Master Commissioner of Revenue that Dominion Aquaculture owns 123.09 acres "on the waters of the Clinch River in the Town of Richlands."
Email 5 On May 14, 2015 John H. Schiering, CEO of Dominion Aquaculture, LLC advises Doyle Rasnick, Chairman of Tazewell County IDA, that "we have formally commenced with the permitting process and are meeting with the US Army Corps of Engineers..." List of project accomplishments.
Email 6 May 14, 2015 Doyle Rasnick, Chairman of Tazewell County IDA, updates Tim Pfohl, Executive Director of the Tobacco Commission that delays have occurred due to "legal encumbrances on the 122 acre site, and the complex permitting process..." Request to change Tobacco Commission $1.5 million grant base quarter to 10/01/2015. Letter from Bolling & Hearl, attorneys at Law to Ned Stephenson and Tim Pfohl of the Tobacco Commission about "matters regarding efforts to secure title to a tract or boundary of property containing approximately 122 acres, located near Richlands here in Tazewell County, Virginia (the "Property").

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

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