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Posted at 6:30 PM ET, 12/ 2/2010

Your tobacco settlement funds at work

By Paige Winfield Cunningham

Who knew that thermal-pane windows and museum exhibits helped out tobacco farmers? Apparently they do, since they've been bankrolled by a fund that's supposed to help rural, tobacco-dependent communities in south and southwest Virginia.

Even though the Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Program has distributed nearly $1 billion over the past decade, it has attracted fairly little notice. Its 24 members gather regularly to review a flood of grant requests and decide who gets the dough.

But I'm starting to wonder if some of that dough has gone a little sour. Maybe others are too, after former Finance Secretary John Forbes drew attention to the commission when he was sentenced for embezzling $4 million from the fund.

The pot of money is Virginia's share of a massive, $206 billion settlement paid by the nation's four largest tobacco companies. State law says it can be distributed for two purposes: (1) to help compensate tobacco farmers for their losses and (2) to revitalize tobacco-dependent communities.

That's why it's a bit strange a civil rights museum in Farmville has received more than $630,000 to install more efficient window panes and to build cool exhibits. And of the two state lawmakers originally credited with helping to procure the grant, one denied involvement, while the other declined to comment.

State Sen. Frank Ruff (the one denying involvement) cited tourism as the connection between the grants and the commission's intention. By improving the museum, the grants were helping to promote tourism, and thus contributing to Farmville's economic health.

Tourism in Farmville? When I just now looked it up on Google maps, I noticed that I misspelled the name as "Farmsville" in my story. I guess the town's many supposed tourists would probably be able to spell it correctly.

The sad part is, the economically depressed region undoubtedly has many needs that trump infusing money into museum improvements. In a recent year, the commission was able to approve only half of the grant requests it received. It's an opportunity loss for rural Virginians and members of the commission.

House Minority Leader Ward Armstrong [D-Henry] has been something of a whistle blower for the commission. As he told The Post, "the most dangerous thing in the world is unprotected wealth."

Paige Winfield Cunningham is an investigative reporter and managing editor at Old Dominion Watchdog. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.

By Paige Winfield Cunningham  | December 2, 2010; 6:30 PM ET
Categories:  HotTopic, Local blog network, Virginia, economy, smoking  
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Comments

Yet another reason why the whole settlement was nothing more than a shakedown by states attorneys general to fill state government coffers. Of course, paid for directly by consumers through higher tobacco prices.

Posted by: traderdad37 | December 8, 2010 2:48 PM | Report abuse

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