Va.’s new attorney general fires U-Va. counsel who was on leave working as top investigator for Jan. 6 panel

Virginia’s new Republican attorney general has fired University of Virginia’s counsel, who was on leave from the job to work as the top investigator for U.S. House of Representatives panel investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, the attorney and university said.

Tim Heaphy, who had worked at the state’s flagship university for about three years, was among roughly 30 staffers whom were let go by Jason S. Miyares shortly before he took office a little over a week ago. Democrats have questioned the firings and how they were carried out.

Victoria LaCivita, a Miyares spokeswoman, said the attorney general’s office had also fired the counsel for George Mason University, Brian Walther, saying it is common for an incoming attorney general to appoint counsel that shares its “philosophy and legal approach.”

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Both Heaphy and Walther are Democrats.

LaCivita declined to say whether any other counsels at Virginia’s more than three dozen public colleges and universities had been let go.

LaCivita said in a statement that Heaphy was a “controversial” hire and Miyares’s Democratic predecessor, Mark Herring, had “excluded many qualified internal candidates when he brought in this particular university counsel.”

“Our decision was made after reviewing the legal decisions made over the last couple of years,” LaCivita said. “The Attorney General wants the university counsel to return to giving legal advice based on law, and not the philosophy of a university. We plan to look internally first for the next lead counsel.”

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LaCivita declined to say what legal decisions she was referencing. LaCivita said Heaphy’s firing had nothing to do with his work on the Jan. 6 panel.

Michael Kelly, Herring’s former chief of staff, said LaCivita’s characterization of Heaphy’s hiring was inaccurate. He said in an email that Heaphy was well-qualified attorney with decades of experience who had attended U-Va. Kelly added that Heaphy was the first choice of the school’s administration.

“Far from being controversial, his hire was celebrated by the university community and leadership,” Kelly wrote.

Heaphy said in a statement he was sorry his time with the University of Virginia was over.

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“Serving as University Counsel for the past [three] years has been a tremendous honor and privilege,” Heaphy said. “As a two-time graduate of the university, the parent of a current student, and a longtime resident of Charlottesville, I love the university and have been privileged to contribute to its aspiration to be both great and good.”

The University of Virginia said in its statement that school leaders were grateful for Heaphy’s “outstanding service” and were “disappointed to see it come to an end.”

Heaphy was hired by the university in 2018. The hiring came after he conducted an independent investigation of the infamous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017 that left one protester dead and dozens others injured. He was previously appointed as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia by President Barack Obama.

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Heaphy was the university’s counsel as the campus sorted through the legal issues that came with introducing a coronavirus vaccine mandate. Officials ultimately decided they had the legal authority to enforce vaccines, with some exceptions, and introduced a requirement for students in May.

Some schools had been hesitant to enact such a measure because the vaccines did not yet have full approval from the Food and Drug Administration. U-Va. later expanded its vaccine mandate to include faculty and staff. That guidance was recently rescinded following a directive from Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

State Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax) said he thought Heaphy’s firing was in part political payback for his work on the Jan. 6 panel and felt the firings might scare qualified candidates away from the counsel jobs for fear they might be let go by a future administration.

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“No attorney general has treated these positions as political,” Surovell said. “By turning these positions into political jobs, it’s going to be very difficult for universities to hire the best talent in our state.”

Walther, formerly of George Mason, referred questions about his firing to the university’s communications department, which directed questions to Miyares’s office. The university did say in a statement that Walther had been a member of the George Mason community for 22 years and served as counsel since 2017. The university introduced a vaccine requirement for students and employees in July.

“The Mason community is grateful to Brian for his work and his many years of service,” the statement read.

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Miyares has made a flurry of moves in his opening days on the job. On Friday night, his office urged the Supreme Court to overturn the landmark decision on Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion nationwide.

Miyares also announced last week he was pulling Virginia from legal action seeking to defend the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants. He said the plan was detrimental to the coal industry in southwest Virginia.

Miyares, who is Virginia’s first Latino elected to statewide office, was part of a conservative wave that propelled Republicans to the top three offices in the state in November.