RICHMOND — Gov. Terry McAuliffe doled out some of Virginia’s juiciest political plums to seven current or former administration officials and two of their wives on Friday, appointing them to boards overseeing state colleges and universities.
It is not uncommon for governors to reward top donors and political allies with Board of Visitors seats, an unpaid but prestigious perch in the state’s highly regarded public university system. But McAuliffe (D) raised Republican eyebrows by unveiling so many administration-linked appointees at once, in his last round of Board of Visitors picks before he leaves office in January.
Some of the complaints centered on McAuliffe’s selection of three current Cabinet members, though they will not begin serving on the college boards until they leave the governor’s administration.
“These BOV appts are pure political patronage,” Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) tweeted. “Unfortunate step back in efforts to improve governance in higher ed.”
McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy called Republican objections “shrill partisan attacks” that “do not change the fact that these individuals are qualified to contribute to these universities and the best system of higher education in the nation.”
“These are public servants,” Coy added. “They are people who, in most cases, gave up more lucrative careers to serve Virginia. That’s the exact kind of person you want serving on these boards.”
Virginia’s Republican-controlled General Assembly has the power and, at times, the inclination to unseat McAuliffe’s appointees — most notably in 2016, when it ousted Jane Marum Roush, the governor’s recess pick for the state Supreme Court. The legislature will vote on his Board of Visitors selections when it reconvenes in January.
On Friday, McAuliffe appointed 53 people to various higher education boards. Among them were three current Cabinet secretaries: Suzette P. Denslow, McAuliffe’s deputy chief of staff, to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia; Todd Haymore, secretary of commerce and trade, to the Virginia Commonwealth University board; and Transportation Secretary Aubrey L. Layne, Jr, to the Old Dominion University board.
Two spouses of current secretaries: Layne’s wife, Peggy A. Layne, to the state board for community colleges; Karyn Moran, the wife of Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran, to the Radford University board.
Four former administration officials: Former commerce secretary Maurice Jones to the University of Virginia board; Lincoln Saunders, former chief of staff to first lady Dorothy McAuliffe (and now chief of staff to Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, McAuliffe’s former secretary of the commonwealth), to the College of William & Mary board; Anna Healy James, McAuliffe’s former policy director, to the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University board; and Gregory Whirley Sr., who briefly served as McAuliffe’s transportation commissioner as a holdover from the administration of Robert F. McDonnell (R), to the Virginia State University Board.
For the three current Cabinet members, McAuliffe made the appointments effective Jan. 13, the day he leaves office, instead of July 1, when the others begin their four-year terms. Virginia’s constitution prohibits governors from serving consecutive terms.
Jerry Kilgore, a former Republican state attorney general who has been active in higher education, said he was concerned that the January effective date for Denslow, Haymore and Layne means their terms would expire in January 2022 — as McAuliffe’s successor leaves office — instead of June 30, 2021. Kilgore said that timing would prevent the next governor from filling those slots before his term is up.
“The question arises with the delayed appointments because it looks as if the governor is taking those appointments away from the next governor,” said Kilgore, the former chairman of the Virginia Commission on Higher Education Board Appointments. “And the General Assembly will consider that issue when they’re asked to confirm these appointments.”
But Coy, McAuliffe’s spokesman, said that would not happen. Even though the start dates for the three Cabinet secretaries will be delayed until Jan. 13, he said their terms will end along with the other appointees on June 30, 2021.
“That will not extend their term,” he said. “The current spot holder will continue to serve in the interim. ”
Governors have made waves before with Board of Visitors appointees. In 1998, then-governor James S. Gilmore III (R) named the wealthy son of televangelist Pat Roberson to U-Va.’s governing board.
In 2015, McAuliffe gave a U-Va. slot to Jeffrey C. Walker, a New York philanthropist who donated $50,000 in two installments to McAuliffe’s 2013 campaign. Walker’s second $25,000 donation came soon after he and other key alumni spoke with McAuliffe about issues at the flagship university — and soon after the candidate updated his higher education platform to reflect some of the alumni’s ideas, The Washington Post reported at the time.
Walker helped lead a group of U-Va. alumni who were lobbying gubernatorial candidates to involve the university community in selecting members of the board. The group’s top priority was to have eight of the 17 board seats filled with appointees selected by the governor from a pool created by U-Va. alumni, donors, faculty, staff and others connected to the school.
That change never came to pass, but during the campaign, McAuliffe’s campaign policy director told Walker that the campaign had “modified Terry’s higher ed policy and had posted it to their website,” Walker wrote in an email that The Post obtained from the university through a public records request.
“It is critically important that alumni, staff, students and other members of college and university communities are involved in the selection of their governing boards,” the updated platform read. “The Governor should solicit and respect slates of nominees from college and university communities when filling board slots.”