Youngkin administration blocks the release of calendar, advisor’s emails
Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s office refused to release a controversial advisor’s emails under a state law the governor has repeatedly used to block the release of information.
The administration also rebuffed VPM News’ request for the governor’s calendar from July 1-27, citing a state law that allows some public officials to keep “working papers and correspondence” from public release. VPM News made the request to learn more about his national travels amid speculation he may run for president in 2024.
VPM News received the same response after requesting all emails sent or received by T. March Bell from Aug. 8 through Aug. 23.
Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, noted state law allows Youngkin to release the files voluntarily. She argued the calendar should be at least partially released, though few recent governors have done so.
“If there are particular entries that need to be redacted, I think that’s the way that they should proceed rather than saying the entire thing is off limits,” Rhyne said.
Rhyne said state code is clear about which positions are allowed to shield documents, and Bell’s post isn’t one of them.
Youngkin’s spokesperson, Macaulay Porter, declined to comment.
In May, Youngkin’s chief of staff offered Bell a post as senior advisor to Secretary of Public Safety Bob Mosier — and a $125,000 annual salary. VPM News requested the emails to glean more information about his role, which was not announced publicly.
Bell worked in several positions in both state and federal government prior to his job in the Youngkin administration. In 1997, he was asked to resign from his post as deputy director of the state Department of Environmental Quality after a legislative audit found he couldn’t justify a nearly $8,000 payment to a former employee. Bell served from 2015-2017 as a lead staffer on a controversial GOP Congressional investigation into fetal tissue sales. Former President Donald Trump later appointed him to the federal Department of Health and Human Services, where documents show he worked to undo some gender identity protections proposed by former President Barack Obama.
Speaking to reporters last week, Youngkin defended the hire, arguing Bell would help efforts to reduce violent crime. He called his administration “the most extraordinary collection of people to serve Virginians in the history of Virginia.”
Although Bell serves under Mosier, his position technically falls under the Virginia State Police, according to a spokesperson for the Department of Human Resource Management.
That would appear to make him ineligible to claim the working paper exemption under Virginia’s open records law, according to Rhyne. The law names who can claim the exemption, including the governor, their Cabinet secretaries and other executive branch appointments who are approved by the General Assembly. People who aren’t named can’t claim the exemption on the governor’s behalf, according to Rhyne.
Two days after he was elected, Youngkin told reporters that his administration would be “incredibly open and accessible.”
But the Republican is now facing two lawsuits related to his office’s witholding of submissions to a “tip line” the office set up for parents and students to submit direct feedback on their school. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press represented VPM News in a separate lawsuit alleging the Department of Education wrongfully withheld a document they’d claimed was exempt. VDOE eventually voluntarily handed over the document and paid $5,000 in court fees but admitted no wrongdoing.
While Democrats have attacked Youngkin’s lack of transparency, they’ve also been the subject of criticism over the issue in the past. As governor, Democrat Tim Kaine used the code to shield his travel schedule amid criticism about his national travel on behalf of the Democratic National Committee. Virginia State Police ultimately released the records.
Another Democrat, former Gov. Ralph Northam, denied requests for his calendar, while former Gov. Terry McAuliffe attempted to block the release of an ABC report related to the violent arrest of a University of Virginia student in 2015 before eventually relenting.
“All of the governors that we've had have used it in ways that I think have gone beyond what we were trying to do when the law was drafted and re-codified in around 2000,” Rhyne said.
Local officials have also used the exemptions. Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s office cited it last month in rejecting a request related to a July 6 press conference centered on what he described as an averted mass shooting.