The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported yesterday on what appears to be a classic case of the “Virginia Way” – the cozy, cronyist, pay-to-play, opaque, “legally corrupt” revolving door between Virginia elected officials, government, the corporate world, and other bodies that our theoretically regulated by the state.
In this case, former Virginia Lt. Governor Bill Bolling (R) basically “create[d] a job for himself at [James Madison University – JMU]” for $140k per year, plus an $18k+ “signing bonus,” plus “reduced-rate rent on a university-owned house,” plus “free club seats to home football games,” plus the ability to continue working at an insurance firm on the side, plus no competition for the job, plus five weeks vacation, plus a big boost to Bolling’s pension, plus plus, plus. Shweet, huh?
Also worth noting is that Bolling was a member of the JMU Board of Visitors until June 2018, and that “JMU President Jon Alger hired Bolling for the newly created position of senior fellow in residence for public service following discussions that began in part while Bolling was still one of Alger’s bosses on the university’s Board of Visitors.” Hmmmm.
Now, as far as I’m aware, there’s nothing illegal here, but it sure doesn’t smell good – and it probably SHOULD be illegal, but again…we’re talking “Virginia Way” here.
[UPDATE Sunday morning – Jeff Thomas, who literally wrote the book on The Virginia Way, emailed me: “Can’t say whether or not it was illegal without knowing all the facts. It might depend on the overlap between Board service and job creation. According to the article, Bolling and the President were talking about a job and university lawyers expressed concern and told them to stop talking about a job offer until after Bolling was off the Board. That is a gigantic red flag for former ‘ethics chairman’ Bolling. It’s telling that Cullen (who for some reason is treated as a bastion of integrity, but so far as I know, has never admitted that a politician has ever been guilty of anything and is paid not to admit it) would insist on the red herring that Bolling had not run afoul of the Virginia conflicts law, which is entirely toothless. The issue, of course, is that he may have run afoul of federal law. These are not stupid people; Cullen’s son is the U.S. Attorney for the area and now that office is conflicted. Bolling needs to resign immediately and make sure he has all his ducks in the row for a JMU investigation and even an FBI interview.
Just a few problematic aspects that jump out from the RTD story include:
- Del. Steve Landes (R) asked, “is the state or foundation funding this position? Who authorized this position? The Board of Visitors or the President?”
- Del. Chris Jones (R) said, “I thought it showed poor judgment on behalf of the university.”
- Sen. Mark Obenshain (R) tweeted, “A sinecure (from Latin sine = ‘without’ and cura = ‘care’) is an office that requires or involves little or no responsibility, labour, or active service.”
- “Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., said the situation is problematic. The job of university governing board members is to listen to various constituencies in serving the public but to be beholden to no one, he said. And a board’s most important function is the hiring and review of the university president. ‘That fiduciary oversight cannot be compromised.'”
Also worth noting is that two right-wing Virginia blogs really have gone after Bolling over this.
- At The Bull Elephant, chief blogger Jeanine Martin wrote, “Bolling creates his own job, his title, his pay, and his benefits.”
- At Bacon’s Rebellion, blogger Steve Haner ripped into the “Virginia Way” deal as “no more potent example of arrogance and entitlement-thinking,” and concluded: “Maybe it is legal for a well-connected former legislator, while sitting on a university board, to negotiate for himself a fat sinecure to start just after his service. I’m sure all the people who have spent long careers in education earning far less, and all the parents and students struggling to finance their payments to JMU, see absolutely no problem. Former Newport News legislator Phil Hamilton, still in federal prison for arranging a university job for himself through his budget machinations, will be the first to say this situation is totally different. Then again, maybe not.”
On that Phil Hamilton comment, the reference is to the former Virginia Delegate who “was sentenced on August 12, 2011 to 9 1/2 years in prison by a U.S. district jury after a conviction in May of one count of federal program bribery and one count of extortion under color of official right for what was found to be criminal solicitation of Old Dominion University employees for the ODU contractor position, a coerced quid pro quo for a legislative budget amendment to fund the position and the training center that Hamilton had introduced in the Virginia legislature.” In that case, “Virginia newspapers obtained emails which revealed Hamilton expected to be hired by…ODU in return for procuring public funding for a new teacher training center. The General Assembly went on to give the center $500,000 a year in state funding, and ODU, in turn, gave Hamilton a $40,000 a year job as an independent contractor.”
The question is whether the situation with Bill Bolling and JMU is at all comparable to the Hamilton/ODU case. I asked a Democratic legislator earlier today, and their response was that in this case, there was “no quid here, just a quo.” I’m not sure that we know whether that’s really the case, but it certainly does seem like the Hamilton situation was more egregious than this one. Regardless, it’s interesting that back in 2009, Bill Bolling was one of a number of Republicans calling on Hamilton to step down from the House of Delegates after the Hamilton/ODU news broke. We’ll see how this situation unfolds, including whether it becomes an issue during the 2019 Virginia General Assembly session. Something to keep an eye on…
P.S. Check out the following report, by “Breaking Through News” in late August, about Bolling joining JMU’s faculty.