Richmond, VA – In an unprecedented act, a report by the Richmond Times-Dispatch uncovered that Governor Youngkin’s top policy aide and Deputy Chief of Staff is being paid by two outside private consulting firms – not the government. This concerning report laid out the many crucial responsibilities the unpaid “volunteer” carries – including negotiating on behalf of the governor, speaking for the governor, and organizing policy directives this past legislative session.
This raises important questions about the arrangement, whether conflicts of interest exist and whether any ethics laws are being violated or skirted. Virginians deserve transparency and accountability, and who is Gov. Youngkin’s staff accountable to – Virginians or far-right consulting firms?
READ MORE BELOW:
Richmond Times-Dispatch: Top Youngkin aide on payroll of political consultants, not state
By Patrick Wilson & Mel Leonor
A political consulting firm tells clients it will help them navigate the new Republican-controlled executive branch of Virginia’s government. LINK Public Affairs might have an edge over its competition — one of its senior strategists is also a top aide to Gov. Glenn Youngkin and has been working in the governor’s suite.
The Youngkin aide — Matt Moran — wields significant power on behalf of the governor, telling lawmakers which bills the governor might sign or veto and negotiating with them on top policy issues like marijuana legalization, school choice and public funding for a new Washington Commanders stadium. He’s not on the state payroll but is employed by — and on paid leave from — two political consulting firms that seek to influence elected officials.
The situation is unheard of in Virginia, according to a veteran observer of state politics. And a law professor and expert on government ethics said that even if there’s no evidence of legal wrongdoing, the situation raises ethical questions.
Bob Holsworth, a former VCU dean and longtime observer of Virginia’s government, said the lack of transparency about the situation is unsettling.
“I know of no situation where a deputy chief of staff role has been outsourced, and without any public acknowledgment,” he said. If a person doing government work is not paid by the state, “it should be very clear what the arrangement is, and how that person is accessing governmental resources, and what that person’s role is within the government, and what that person’s role is outside the government.”
Richard Cullen, counselor to Youngkin, said he reviewed Moran’s arrangement beforehand and found it legal and ethical.
Moran declined to be interviewed for this story, and instead directed questions to another Youngkin administration official.
“As senior adviser in the Governor’s office, I serve in a volunteer capacity and do so without compensation. I am on leave from all companies and as a result do not have clients with business before the Governor or state government,” Moran said in a statement, through a spokeswoman.
“I formalized this arrangement with counsel’s office and I am fully committed to my service to the Governor and the people of Virginia. It is a privilege to have the opportunity to serve the Governor and work on behalf of the Commonwealth.”
The companies Moran works for are Creative Direct, a political consulting firm, and LINK Public Affairs, a new offshoot of Creative Direct. The two firms’ consultants do not register as lobbyists.
Moran previously worked as a high-ranking aide to then-House Speakers Bill Howell, R-Stafford, and Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, and as a lobbyist with the firm Gentry Locke. He also worked on the campaigns of Youngkin and Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears last year as a consultant.
He filed a statement of economic interest with the state in January because of his role in the governor’s office, which discloses his employment at Creative Direct and LINK Public Affairs, and two other LLCs through which he’s been paid for previous campaign work. The paperwork listed his position as deputy chief of staff.
In then-Gov. Bob McDonnell’s administration, Bob Sledd served as unpaid economic adviser to the governor. But that situation was different, Holsworth said, because there was a public, transparent process about what Sledd’s role would be and that he would not be paid.
Former Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne is staying on in the Youngkin administration for a time as an unpaid special adviser to new Finance Secretary Steve Cummings while working as senior vice president and chief of staff at Sentara Healthcare.
Cullen said in a statement: “After reviewing the law, the ethics rules and precedents of other administrations, I made a determination about the proper way to work as a volunteer in the Governor’s office. My legal analysis was the same for both Mr. Moran and Mr. Layne.
“It’s important for administrations, regardless of the party in power, to have the ability to attract talent and expertise as is the case here. Both Mr. Layne and Mr. Moran have added value in their respective duties without cost to the taxpayer and we have been transparent about their roles.”
The Richmond Times-Dispatch learned through the Freedom of Information Act that Moran was not paid by the state when he was not listed on a roster of new Youngkin appointees, even though a Jan. 21 news release from the governor listed him as deputy chief of staff and director of policy and legislative affairs.
The governor’s office later corrected the news release to list his title as special adviser.
A sign on Moran’s office in the Patrick Henry Building, where the governor’s offices are, bore his name and the title “deputy chief of staff,” according to a Feb. 17 photo obtained by The Times-Dispatch.
In a statement through Youngkin spokeswoman Becca Glover, Moran said his leave from employers outside the administration began when Youngkin was inaugurated Jan. 15.
“I filed a complete financial disclosure and comply with all applicable state laws and executive branch policies, including the conflict of interest act,” Moran said.
The governor’s office would not say whether the arrangement included Moran abstaining from political work outside of the administration’s affairs. On Feb. 14, the halfway point of the General Assembly session, Moran reached out to The Times-Dispatch pitching a story about an official planning to announce a run in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, Stafford County Supervisor Crystal Vanuch.
Since Moran makes his living, in part, by influencing government, “a key question is, is he in a position not just to affect his own financial interests, but the financial interests of his clients while he’s in that government position?” said Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis who works in the area of government ethics.
“All of government ethics basically boils down to attempting to ensure that government officials act in the public interest rather than on behalf of a private interest — whether it’s their own interest, their brother-in-law’s interest, their private client’s interest. It’s all about trying to sort of separate government officials from identifiable private interests that could taint, that could affect, their work that’s supposed to be on behalf of the public.”
Holsworth said: “If there is a sign on an individual’s door that says he is the deputy chief of staff, the only reasonable inference is that that individual works for Virginia state government.”
Influence in the Capitol
Moran was the governor’s point person for lawmakers during the regular General Assembly session that adjourned March 12. Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, said Moran notified him that if a bill Ware filed to end campaign donations from public utilities reached Youngkin’s desk, Youngkin would sign it.
In the final days of the regular session, Moran showed up with Cullen, the governor’s counselor, outside the House and Senate chambers to negotiate with lawmakers on major unresolved issues.
Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, said that for many delegates, the only contact they had with someone from the governor’s office during the session was with Moran.
But Moran’s authority made at least one lawmaker uncomfortable.
Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, met with Youngkin on Feb. 22 in the governor’s ceremonial office in the Capitol. The senator said Moran was the only other person in the room.
Ebbin said that while he and Youngkin discussed their disagreement on how each party had blocked certain political appointees, the meeting was cordial. But afterward, Ebbin said, a House GOP committee chairman told his office that an Ebbin bill would be held up in committee at the request of the governor’s office.
In an exchange in a Capitol hallway, Ebbin asked Moran why. Ebbin said in an interview that Moran appeared to take responsibility for the holdup.
Moran responded: “You threatened the governor,” according to Ebbin.
Ebbin said he was dumbfounded. He quoted Moran as then saying: “Don’t worry, we’re not going to kill your bills, but you threatened the governor. Your bills are going by for the day.”
As discussions continued, Moran referenced the number of bills sponsored by Ebbin that appeared headed for legislative passage, saying: “And the governor is not particularly wedded to any of them,” Ebbin said.
Ebbin said Moran told him Youngkin “could sign them all, or — he implied that he could veto them all. He didn’t use the word veto. And I was a little bit shaken up, but I wasn’t going to retract my position.”
The Washington Post: Key Youngkin adviser is paid by political firms
By Laura Vozzella
Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), who took office in January with no experience in government, has relied heavily on a Richmond insider who knows his way around the Capitol — and works for free.
Matthew Moran puts in long hours as Youngkin’s director of policy and legislative affairs, but the only paycheck he collects is from two political consulting firms. He is on a paid leave of absence from Creative Direct, where he’s a vice president, and an affiliate in which he has an ownership interest, Link Public Affairs.
Neither firm employs registered lobbyists, but Link runs public affairs campaigns designed to influence legislators through such things as TV ads and polling.
While other Virginia governors have had unpaid advisers — and Youngkin himself has a second volunteer at his service — Moran’s situation is especially unusual, because he works full time for the administration with a state title, but without upfront disclosure that he’s a volunteer on someone else’s payroll.
Critics say the arrangement presents a conflict of interest and creates a loophole around Virginia’s revolving-door laws, which prohibit certain paid state employees from lobbying for a year after leaving their jobs.
“At no time did anybody in that administration from the governor on down publicly announce that that guy was on the payroll of a private consulting company,” Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said in an interview Friday. “The whole thing just smells.”
Moran declined a request to be interviewed but issued a statement through Youngkin’s press office defending the arrangement.
“I am on leave from all companies and as a result do not have clients with business before the Governor or state government,” Moran said in the statement. “I formalized this arrangement with counsel’s office and I am fully committed to my service to the Governor and the people of Virginia. It is a privilege to have the opportunity to serve the Governor and work on behalf of the Commonwealth.”
Moran’s statement did not provide a reason for the unpaid arrangement. Three people with knowledge of his situation said he had agreed to serve the administration for only a few months, just long enough to guide Youngkin through his first General Assembly session.
Moran’s stay might be extended, because the legislature adjourned March 12 without completing work on the two-year budget and a handful of high-profile bills, according to the three, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to share his plans. Youngkin has called a special session for April 4.
Moran’s willingness to work for the state for free could help him win favor with the governor as he decides what firms will handle his political work. Youngkin, whose win in a seemingly blue state made him a national GOP sensation and the object of 2024 presidential speculation, is in the early stages of establishing what is expected to be a hefty political operation.
Axiom Strategies, the political consulting firm engaged for his campaign, has continued to advise Youngkin since he took office — also for free, an arrangement that an Axiom official said was not unusual for the period between an election and the establishment of a sitting governor’s political action committee.
Youngkin’s campaign PAC, Virginia Wins, filed paperwork this month to change its name to Spirit of Virginia. Youngkin disclosed the new PAC on Wednesday to explain who was funding a TV ad he had launched to nudge lawmakers to accept his plan for tax cuts. Details about who will run the PAC were not disclosed.
“If [Moran] was motivated by a desire to cash in on his connection to the new Governor, he would have hung up his lobbying shingle on Jan. 14 right after his successful Youngkin campaign and transition,” Richard Cullen, Youngkin’s chief legal counsel, said in a statement. “He would have been the hottest guy in Richmond. But Matt did the opposite and to his financial detriment.”
Youngkin has another volunteer helping his administration: Aubrey Layne, who was secretary of finance under Gov. Ralph Northam (D), has been an unpaid adviser to his successor, Stephen E. Cummings. Layne, who also served as secretary of transportation under Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), has advised Cummings on a part-time basis while working as a senior executive for Sentara Healthcare, a large health system with interests before state government. Layne did not respond to a request for comment.
The administration announced at the start that Layne would not be paid. That was also the case for businessman Robert Sledd, who volunteered as an economic adviser to Republican governor Robert F. McDonnell after Senate Democrats, upset by Sledd’s intention to remain on the boards of three corporations, balked at approving him for a Cabinet post.
“After reviewing the law, the ethics rules and precedents of other administrations, I made a determination about the proper way to work as a volunteer in the Governor’s office,” Cullen said in a statement that Youngkin’s press office issued Friday along with Moran’s. “My legal analysis was the same for both Mr. Moran and Mr. Layne. It’s important for administrations, regardless of the party in power, to have the ability to attract talent and expertise as is the case here. Both Mr. Layne and Mr. Moran have added value in their respective duties without cost to the taxpayer and we have been transparent about their roles.”
Moran’s volunteer status was disclosed only recently, following inquiries from the media. In response to a Freedom of Information request from The Washington Post earlier this month, Youngkin’s office released a spreadsheet with salaries for Cabinet secretaries and other top officials. Moran’s was listed as “$0.” The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported on Moran’s status Friday.
Moran has worked in Virginia politics for a decade. After managing a campaign for one rural delegate and serving as legislative aide for another, he rose quickly to spokesman for House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) from 2012 to 2016 and chief of staff to Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) from 2018 to 2019.
Moran was Cox’s top strategist — also as a volunteer — during his unsuccessful bid for the GOP gubernatorial nomination last year. He later joined Youngkin’s campaign and transition and was widely expected to return to private political consulting — a relatively new venture for him — once Youngkin took office.
Described variously in official state documents as a deputy chief of staff and director of policy and legislative affairs, Moran has been a key adviser to the new governor. Moran starts each weekday at a 7 a.m. huddle with Youngkin and a handful of other top aides, all of them state employees making at least $170,000 year.
Since January, Moran has helped Youngkin navigate an unfamiliar Capitol, charting a course that has mixed feel-good stunts with hardball power plays. Whether the governor was bestowing his trademark campaign vests on a pair of Democratic foes or threatening to oust about 1,000 Democratic appointees from state boards, Moran has had a hand in the strategy.
And while results have so far been mixed, Moran has been in the middle of it all, including the governor’s biggest win to date: getting a bill to make masks optional at K-12 schools through the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Virginia Republicans threaten payback for Democrats’ snub of Trump EPA chief
“He was certainly my go-between with the governor’s office,” said Del. Marcus B. Simon (D-Fairfax). Any legislator with a bill on the ropes with the administration has had one option, Simon said: “The way to find out what was really going on was to go find Matt Moran.”
That such a prominent member of the administration is not a state employee is “beyond odd,” Simon said.
“Matt did this probably reluctantly,” Simon said. “It’s clear he wanted to keep one foot in his new professional life, but I think he’s always a good soldier and his commonwealth needed him, his governor needed him, and they came up with this funky relationship. … But the problems it creates — and the appearance and the actual conflicts — are really hard to excuse.”