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Obenshain Takes Aim At JMU's Bolling Hire

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Just months after his term on the James Madison University Board of Visitors ended last summer, former Virginia Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling began a six-figure job as a senior fellow in residence at JMU.  To State Sen. Mark Obenshain, that represents a clear conflict of interest.  WMRA's Andrew Jenner reports.

Note: WMRA's operating license is held by JMU's board of visitors.

The first bill that Sen. Obenshain introduced for next year’s General Assembly session would ban such a rapid transition from a university’s board to its payroll. Obenshain, whose district includes Harrisonburg and the JMU campus, first learned of Bolling’s new job through a news release.

OBENSHAIN: I thought that, immediately, it was kind of a head-scratcher. I knew that he had been on the Board of Visitors. It was certainly a surprise to have someone rotating off of a college board and into a paid position with the university.

But when he later read in Harrisonburg’s Daily News-Record that Bolling began discussing a possible job with JMU President Jonathan Alger while still serving on the board of visitors:

OBENSHAIN: That’s when it really began to deeply trouble me.

Controversy over the hire intensified earlier this month, when the Richmond Times-Dispatch revealed that Bolling and Alger negotiated additional perks for the job, which was not the subject of a competitive search. According to the newspaper report, in addition his $140,000 salary, Bolling received a signing bonus to cover one year’s rent in a university-owned home, and negotiated an extension to the term of his contract to benefit his state pension.

In a statement, JMU spokesperson Bill Wyatt said the university is disappointed with the article’s characterization of the hiring process, and that the picture the newspaper painted is “inaccurate and irresponsible.”

In a separate statement, Alger emphasized JMU’s commitment to “stanch the trend toward a lack of civility in politics and public discourse. There are few individuals in the Commonwealth who have the credentials to help lead this change,” Alger continued, “and we are excited that Mr. Bolling has agreed to do so on our behalf.”

Bolling, a Republican, served as lieutenant governor from 2006 to 2014, after ten years as a state senator. In a third statement released by JMU, he acknowledged that conversation about his employment began while he was still on the university’s board of visitors, but said that he and President Alger “both felt it was important to receive legal advice to avoid any conflicts of interest for myself or the university.” On advice they received from university counsel, the statement continues, Bolling and Alger did not discuss the matter again until after Bolling’s term on the board ended last summer. In his statement, Bolling said, “I am confident that these discussions were handled appropriately under Virginia law.”

To Obenshain, though, the look is not a good one.

OBENSHAIN: Conflicts of interest are about appearances of impropriety. This is unquestionably a conflict situation, in which somebody who is serving on a board is talking to the executive who reports to him about rotating off of the board and into a paid position with that organization. That’s a conflict.

As introduced, Obenshain’s bill would add one sentence to state code that says – paraphrased into Modern Standard English – that no public university in Virginia can employ a member of its board of visitors for four years after their term on the board expires.

Republican Delegate Tony Wilt, who represents Harrisonburg in the House of Delegates, supports the idea.

WILT: I think it’s a measure that would help create some distance in this situation. I mean it’s pretty self-explanatory, the senator’s bill. Someone that sets on a board, you’ve got to give a little bit of distance from the time they go off the board to the time they could potentially go back to be hired by that institution. I think it’s a good measure.

In an interview with WMRA, Obenshain said the state supreme court has interpreted the wording in his bill – that no university “shall employ” – to apply retroactively. That’s from a recent ruling on a law barring people with felony convictions from jobs as a public school teacher. In other words, Obenshain said, if his bill passes as written, it could mean state law would prohibit Bolling from continuing in his current position. Obenshain said he would withdraw his bill if Bolling would resign or JMU would end his employment.

OBENSHAIN: I think it would probably help to defuse some of the public concern that’s been articulated if they could find some way to unwind it.

JMU spokesperson Bill Wyatt, however, said there are no plans to do anything of the sort.

BILL WYATT: We remain confident that his hiring was appropriate and fully compliant with any legal and human resources policies on our part. In fact, a former attorney general said that no laws were broken in making the hire. So we’re happy that he’s part of the team and he has the full support of James Madison University.

Obenshain’s bill has been assigned the the Senate Committee on Education and Health.

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Andrew Jenner is a freelance reporter based in Harrisonburg. After working as a journalist in the Shenandoah Valley for a decade, he spent three years living and reporting in Brazil, returning to Harrisonburg in the summer of 2018. Andrew has reported for TheAtlantic.com, The Washington Post, Deutsche Welle, Discover, Modern Farmer, and many others. He is a graduate of Eastern Mennonite University, has a MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Goucher College, and almost made it onto Jeopardy! a few years ago.