Did Cuccinelli almost ruin the state's recruitment of Northrop Grumman?

Democrat Terry McAuliffe claims Republican Ken Cuccinelli imperiled the state's recruitment of Northrop Grumman at the 16:10 mark of this tape.

The legend of Northrop Grumman looms over this fall’s statewide elections.

It goes back to early 2010, when the defense contractor announced it would move its headquarters from Los Angeles to metropolitan Washington, setting off intense competition between Virginia and Maryland to woo the corporation.

According to Democrats, Northrop Grumman was on the verge of accepting Virginia’s proposal when, at the last moment, it became spooked by an advisory issued by Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli that state law does not allow public colleges to protect gays students and staff from discrimination.  

Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate for governor, picked up the story here during a Sept. 25 debate against Cuccinelli, who’s now the GOP’s gubernatorial nominee:

"What happened? Northrop Grumman, which was about to move their national headquarters to Virginia -- it was between Maryland and Virginia -- obviously the employees squawked at that. And what happened? Governor McDonnell had to interject himself to stop his attorney general and save that deal. Three hundred high-paying jobs."

McAuliffe has told this tale often on the campaign trail and so has Ralph Northam, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor. The moral, they say, is that Cuccinelli is too extreme in his conservatism to be trusted with Virginia's financial well being. 

We tried to get the bottom of this story, but decided we couldn’t rule on its accuracy because there’s no way to know what was privately said between Gov. Bob McDonnell and top Northrop Grumman executives.

McAuliffe’s proof for his claim comes down to an anonymous source in the governor’s office telling The New York Times in 2010 that Cuccinelli’ opinion jeopardized the deal. McDonnell’s chief spokesman, Tucker Martin, told us he’s at a loss to explain the anonymous assertion. "This was never an issue in the recruitment of Northrop Grumman," he said.  "All our conversations with the company regarded economic issues."

McDonnell, we should note, is backing Cuccinelli’s gubernatorial bid.

So instead of rolling out the Truth-O-Meter on McAuliffe’s claim, we’ll just lay out what we found.

Let’s step back to 2010.

On Jan. 4, Northrop Grumman announced it would relocate its headquarters with an estimated 300 jobs to the Washington area. The defense contractor, with substantial operations already in Virginia, wanted its corporate base to be near the Pentagon.

Twelve days later, McDonnell was inaugurated as governor and Cuccinelli as attorney general. McDonnell broke the custom of his two Democratic predecessors by not including sexual orientation among the types of discrimination he banned in state bureaucracy through an executive order. McDonnell and Cuccinelli said that only the General Assembly -- not the governor -- had the power to change Virginia’s employment policies.

A bill to do just that passed the Democratic-led Senate in early February and died in the Republican-led House in early March. During floor debate in each chamber, Democrats warned that defeat of the legislation could harm Virginia’s chances of landing Northrop Grumman, a progressive company in non-discrimination policies.

Several Maryland legislators picked up on the theme, publicly claiming their state would be more hospitable to Northrop Grumman’s employees. One Maryland state senator, Democrat Richard Madaleno, wrote a letter to Wesley Bush, Northrop Grumman’s CEO, saying Virginia was "dismantling the few protections" it offered homosexuals.

Cuccinelli stoked the controversy with a March 4 letter advising state universities that their policies barring discrimination against gays and lesbians were not authorized by Virginia law and should be rescinded. Cuccinelli wrote that Democratic and Republican attorneys general had issued similar opinions during the prior 25 years.

McDonnell declined calls from Democratic lawmakers to send down emergency legislation that would outlaw discrimination in state government based on sexual preference. Instead, the governor issued a March 10 memo with a largely symbolic promise that he would not tolerate any form of bias. 

The New York Times article, in which an anonymous aide to the governor said Cuccinelli imperiled the Northrop Grumman deal, ran on March 24.

On April 27, the defense contractor announced it would move its headquarters to Northern Virginia. News stories said the region won because of its proximity to the Pentagon, its large stock of available office buildings and Virginia’s incentive package of $12 million to $14 million.

We asked Randy Belote, Northrop Grumman’s vice president of strategic communications, whether Cuccinelli’s advisory played a role in his company’s deliberations.

"As we said at the time of the move, we chose to move our headquarters to Virginia largely because of facility considerations, proximity to our customers and overall economics," he emailed. "Beyond that we don’t have a comment on specific factors related to that decision."

We also filed a Freedom of Information request with the Virginia Economic Development Department -- the state’s business recruiting agency -- for all of its Northrop Grumman correspondence during the first four months of 2010 that mentioned Cuccinelli or discrimination policies.

It sent us a few emails from within the organization about a bill approved by the General Assembly to help lure Northrop Grumman by giving McDonnell more flexibility in offering incentives.

For a short time, the bill carried an amendment -- offered by Sen. Tommy Norment, R-James City -- specifying that Virginia "maintains an ecumenical atmosphere in its sexual orientation hiring policies in the private and public workforce." Jeff Ryer, a spokesman for the Senate Republican Caucus, said Norment never discussed his amendment with Northrop Grumman and dropped it from the bill after McDonnell issued his March 10 non-discrimination memo.

VEDP’s records contained no Northrop Grumman requests for an explanation of the attorney general’s ruling or indication that discrimination policies were an issue in recruiting the company.

So we suspect the legend of Northrop Grumman has grown into an urban myth, but we can’t say that with Truth-O-Meter certainty.