By Josh Stanfield of Activate Virginia
Over the past couple of months, multiple citizens have come to me with questions about Governor Youngkin’s Commission to Combat Antisemitism: when does this Commission meet, what do they plan to do, and where can we find agendas and minutes of meetings?
So about a week ago, I sent Governor Youngkin’s office a FOIA request to obtain minutes of the most recent meeting of this Commission, established by the Governor’s Executive Order Number Eight.
I received these June 21st minutes and discovered what was a new name to me but apparently a known – and highly controversial – political quantity in Virginia: March Bell.
The Addition of March Bell to the Commission
On page four of the minutes, Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Bob Mosier states:
“We are committed from a law enforcement standpoint to follow up and promote safety among those who are vulnerable. We have taken on a senior advisor, March Bell, to work with us on these issues.”
Mr. Bell then says, “I look forward to working with these issues and hope my background in civil rights can help in the commissions work.”
It’s not clear whether or not Bell’s addition to the Commission is the result of any vote or otherwise democratic process.
But who exactly is March Bell – who was just appointed behind the scenes as a “senior advisor” or “special advisor,” depending on which title from the minutes you want to accept, to Governor Youngkin’s Commission to Combat Antisemitism?
Selling “Baby Body Parts”
Mr. Bell mentions his background in civil rights; indeed, according to Nisa Khan’s 2018 reporting in ProPublica:
“Now, Bell, a former Department of Justice attorney, is a senior adviser and chief of staff in the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services. He started in the Trump administration in March 2017 and took on the additional adviser title in April 2018. The exact details of Bell’s new position have not been made public.”
It’s not Bell’s service in the Trump Administration that makes him a strange and potentially controversial addition to this commission. As Nisa Khan notes:
“In 2015, March Bell was Republican staff director and chief counsel for a House panel that investigated Planned Parenthood. The mission: to find out if Planned Parenthood, a system of more than 600 reproductive care clinics across the country, was profiting off donated fetal tissues. The investigation was kicked off by undercover videos from anti-abortion activists that were heavily doctored and edited.
After 15 months of investigation and $1.6 million in taxpayer dollars, the Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives found no evidence of wrongdoing but nonetheless recommended that the National Institutes of Health stop funding Planned Parenthood. Later, a Texas grand jury cleared the nonprofit of misconduct after the state attempted to defund it. Texas prosecutors did, however, indict two of the anti-abortion activists who shot the undercover videos.”
As Miranda Blue indicates in her 2017 report in Right Wing Watch:
“Speaking on a panel titled “Making the Case for Prosecution of Fetal Body Parts Traffickers,” the House panel’s chief counsel, former Justice Department attorney March Bell, made it clear that while his committee was ostensibly convened to investigate fetal tissue procurement practices—and did extensively delve into that area— one of its ultimate goals was to find ways to weaken Planned Parenthood.”
And Christine Grimaldi reported in 2018 that Congressional Democrats sent a letter to then HHS Secretary Alex Azar that called into question Bell’s “conduct, judgment, and ability to meet professional standards of impartiality and fairness.”
“The Democrats cited a Right Wing Watch report documenting Bell’s remarks to the 2017 Law of Life Summit, an annual March for Life-affiliated event. Bell touted anti-choice ties to David Daleiden, the since-indicted CMP leader; Troy Newman, the head of the radical anti-choice Operation Rescue; and Mark Crutcher of Life Dynamics, the group behind bogus legal threats to trick teens into signing away abortion rights.”
These credentials as a crusader against Planned Parenthood do not seem particularly relevant to a Commission to Combat Antisemitism and make Bell a confusing addition to the body.
Governor George Allen, “Political Chicanery,” and Bell’s Resignation
March Bell apparently has a history in Virginia, a rather sordid one if “March Bell” is “T. March Bell.” As the website bio for T. March Bell, President of the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, states:
“March Bell is the president of the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics. March has extensive experience in executive management and public policy, as well as legal expertise. He has served as general counsel in a federal agency, deputy director of a Virginia state agency, vice president of International Justice Mission, and chief counsel and staff director of a congressional panel.” [Emphasis mine].
The state agency in question appears to be the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), where Bell served as deputy director in the administration of Republican Governor George Allen.
At least until Bell resigned in scandal.
As Spencer Hsu explained in a 1997 Washington Post article:
“DEQ Deputy Director T. March Bell was ousted Monday, an agency official said, just hours after the legislative audit found that Bell could not document the unusually large compensatory-time payment he approved in March to former agency spokesman Michael W. McKenna. McKenna was forced to resign from DEQ for drafting a memo that proposed a campaign of media leaks and lawsuits to try to discredit critics of the agency.”
In a true blast from the past, Delegate Ken Plum at the time declared in the Post:
“The resignation of March Bell takes one of the biggest political operatives out of the agency…Now that he’s no longer an influence, I believe you will see it focus on its environmental mission.”
If you’re truly interested in the 1990s political intrigue, check out Laura LaFay’s 1997 Roanoke Times article which details the scandals at DEQ.
My hometown paper, The Daily Press, perhaps put it best in 1997:
“The mistake that led to Bell’s departure was caused by the same arrogance that defines the administration’s approach to the environment. They think the law doesn’t apply to them – whether it is as small as ignoring a legal requirement to document overtime or as important as refusing to enforce environmental regulations.
DEQ officials should give up political chicanery and devote their time and energy to obeying and enforcing state and federal environmental laws.”
March Bell’s Future on the Commission to Combat Antisemitism
Given what we now know about March Bell, his appointment (if that’s even the right word) to this particular commission becomes even more confusing: what in his professional past suggests any expertise on combating antisemitism?
From the DEQ to anti-abortion crusades to Trump’s Office of Civil Rights in HHS, Bell’s career trajectory suggests not a subject matter expert, technocrat, or pragmatic consensus builder – but instead a hyperpartisan right-wing activist.
It’s then a pressing risk that Bell will inject a behind-the-scenes partisan fervor into a commission meant to deal with one of the most serious issues in our Commonwealth, particularly in a moment defined by increasing racist, fascist, and explicitly Nazi organizing and terror.
In the “Adjournment” section of the Commission’s June 21 meeting minutes, Chairman Jeffrey Rosen closes: “The first two meetings have been about building a foundation for the commission with little public or media attention. When we reconvene as a whole commission, I think it would be good to have it at an interesting location and invite the public and media to solicit more attention.”
I hope, after what we’ve found in just one set of meeting minutes, journalists and citizens will heed Chairman Rosen’s call: pay attention to the Commission to Combat Antisemitism.