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T. March Bell, a Youngkin hire, previously accused of mishandling state funds at DEQ

In May, Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration offered a job to T. March Bell, an attorney and former congressional aide. Unlike many of the governor’s hires, Bell’s new role as senior advisor to Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Bob Mosier wasn’t formally announced by the administration.  

But Bell is a well-known figure in politics at the state and federal levels. He was asked to resign as deputy director of Virginia Department of Environmental Quality in 1997 after a legislative audit found he couldn’t justify a nearly $8,000 payment to a former employee. More recently, Bell has attracted scrutiny for his role in a congressional investigation into Planned Parenthood centered on debunked claims the group was profiting from the sales of fetal tissue. 

Bell, who lives in Northern Virginia, is currently listed as president of the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, a nonprofit that links free-market capitalism and Christianity. His biography on the organization’s website says that he has “extensive experience in executive management and public policy, as well as legal expertise.” It also notes his time as “deputy director of a Virginia state agency” without noting the circumstances of his departure.

IFWE’s founder, Hugh Whelchel, has embraced hardline views on the group’s website, claiming that “Western civilization is the most prosperous, successful civilization ever because of Christianity — nothing else.” 

Bell’s position in the Youngkin administration became public following a series of public records requests filed by Josh Stanfield, a progressive activist. The latest includes a May 20 letter from Youngkin’s chief of staff offering Bell the job, which comes along with a $125,000 annual salary.

Stanfield also first reported Bell’s presence at a meeting of Youngkin’s Commission to Combat Anti-Semitism in a July post on the Blue Virginia blog. Macaulay Porter, a spokesperson for the governor, said Bell is not a member of the commission.

Asked about Bell’s history with DEQ on Wednesday, Youngkin defended his new hire. He argued that being “accused and somebody doing something wrong are very different, and I take great issue with it.”

“I think March can do a great job delivering on commitments we have made in partnership with Petersburg and our violent crime task force, in partnership with Secretary Mosier, and local law enforcement all over the commonwealth,” Youngkin said. 

Bell did not respond to several requests for comment. He previously served as a lawyer in the U.S. Department of Justice focused on human trafficking and terrorism, a GOP congressional staffer and a staffer at the Department of Health and Human Services under former President Donald Trump. His resume includes several high-profile references, including Secretary of Commonwealth Kay Cole James.

Albert Pollard, a former Democratic delegate, regularly clashed with Bell’s DEQ during his tenure as executive director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club in the mid-1990s. In the Youngkin administration, he sees Bell as the “cigarette boy on the Hindenburg” or the “iceberg spotter on the Titanic.”

“It’s disturbing to me that Governor Youngkin wasn’t disturbed by March Bell’s background,” Pollard said. “March Bell was literally fired because of misappropriation of public funds. And nothing in his background has seemed to indicate that he’s repented or reformed his ways.”

Youngkin’s critics have raised questions about his process for vetting potential hires and board appointees.

Democrats blocked the appointment of Andrew Wheeler, a former Trump official, to serve as secretary of natural resources over his environmental record, though he continues to serve in the administration by leading the new Office of Regulatory Management. Youngkin also faced backlash over a board appointee who espoused Lost Cause narratives around the Civil War and another who disparaged Democrats with crude tweets. Both later stepped down.

Another appointee to the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors brought a prominent eugenics supporter to speak on campus when he was  undergraduate, The Cavalier Daily reported last week

Youngkin has distanced himself from his pick for state commissioner of health after they downplayed well-established links between race and health outcomes. And the administration ultimately withdrew a job offer to a candidate to run the state DMV who had a history of “inappropriate conduct” that allegedly included drinking on the job and making sexual comments to coworkers.

Youngkin maintained he’d assembled an exceptional team who’d accomplished major wins during his first seven months in office.

“We have extraordinary people who have given up all kinds of opportunities in their private lives to join the administration,” Youngkin said.  

Bell’s tumultuous time at DEQ

Bell had no apparent environmental experience when he was hired as deputy director of DEQ in December 1995. At that point, he was arguably best known for his work as a GOP staffer on a congressional investigation into the 1993 federal siege of the Branch Davidians religious sect compound in Waco, Texas. Bell came under fire in that post for failing to reveal the panel’s connections to the National Rifle Association, the Baltimore Sun reported

Bell arrived at a tumultuous time for DEQ, which was established in 1993. Critics accused Republican Gov. George Allen’s political appointees of coddling polluters and creating a dysfunctional culture.

In a December 1995 report, the nonpartisan Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission  noted 89% of agency employees disagreed that “morale is good.” Employees said the agency favored industry and business, with 57% saying they feared retaliation for decisions that went against the wishes of the entities they regulated.

Little had changed at DEQ in JLARC’s follow-up report at the end of 1996, when Bell was firmly entrenched as second in command. It found “low employee morale and trust in agency management, problematic internal communication, and poor resource planning.” JLARC also noted “unnecessary expenditures, such as the purchase of satellite television service for four top managers” and the no-bid hiring of contractors whose duties duplicated state employees.

A month later, a top DEQ official, Michael McKenna, was forced to resign after writing a memo that detailed strategies to discredit the report in the media.

The Washington Post called Bell “DEQ’s most visible spokesman for Allen administration policies” and noted he’d played a leading role in a widely criticized reorganization of the agency that led to the firing of 30 staff members.

In June 1997, Bell himself was out of a job. He’d authorized a payment of more than $7,500 to McKenna after the former director of external affairs left his post. An audit found Bell lacked any paperwork to justify the payment, the Post reported at the time. Bell was asked to resign.

Congressional investigation into Planned Parenthood

Bell surfaced again in headlines in 2015 after leaving his post at DOJ, when he was named chief counsel and staff director for a Republican-led congressional panel investigating fetal tissue sales.

The investigation was sparked by secretly recorded videos purporting to show Planned Parenthood executives trying to profit from the sales. An L.A. Times investigation found parts of the videos were rehearsed and misleadingly edited. Critics accused the House panel of harassing researchers, scientists and medical professionals under the guise of an investigation.

The House panel ultimately recommended the National Institutes of Health stop funding fetal tissue research and suggested Congress strip Planned Parenthood of federal funds. It also accused the executive branch of failing to properly oversee fetal tissue transfers.

Twenty states cleared the organization of any wrongdoing or opted against pursuing charges, according to The New York Times

Speaking to a conservative audience in 2017, Bell reportedly told the crowd he’d had “lots of phone calls with David Daleiden,” the activist who played a leading role in creating the videos. Daleiden pleaded not guilty to felony charges in California, where he and another activist are accused of criminal eavesdropping and invasion of privacy in relation to the video campaign. The case is ongoing. In 2019, a federal jury awarded Planned Parenthood a nearly $2-million civil judgment in its lawsuit against Daleiden and his colleagues.

Daleiden and his allies claim the lawsuits and criminal charges are politically motivated. He counter-sued California.

In his 2017 speech, RightWingWatch reported Bell said it would be easy to shut down abortion clinics through lawsuits. “Any interference in their cash flow that we can bring through any kind of lawsuit—violating any local health regulations, these lawsuits about people not being cared for when there’s a perforated uterus, and so on—can shut down a whole state or a whole group of clinics,” he reportedly said.

In March of that year, Trump’s administration appointed Bell chief of staff for the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services. ProPublica noted that there had been no public announcement of his hiring. A handful of Democrats in the House of Representatives responded with a letter in February 2018 calling for the Trump administration to recuse Bell from cases related to abortion.

On his resume, Bell wrote that his duties at the time included overseeing teams repealing and drafting regulations, approving personnel contracts and public-records retention. 

Calendars obtained by American Oversight indicate Bell was involved in the Trump administration’s push to limit gender identity protections that former President Barack Obama’s administration said should be included in the Affordable Care Act. The Trump administration sought to limit protections to sex, not gender identity.   

Time in the Youngkin administration 

It’s unclear if Bell is continuing as president of the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, a position he assumed in December 2021. The nonprofit’s founder did not respond to an email seeking comment. His duties for the Youngkin administration also have not been made public.

Stanfield, the progressive activist, learned about Bell’s hiring by reviewing June minutes from Youngkin’s Commission to Combat Anti-Semitism. Secretary Mosier introduced Bell at the meeting, according to the minutes: “We are committed from a law enforcement standpoint to follow up and promote safety among those who are vulnerable. We have taken on a senior advisor, March Bell, to work with us on these issues.”

Porter said that Bell is not a member of the commission. In the minutes, Bell is referred to as “Special Advisor Bell.” 

Jamie Lockhart, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia, said in a statement that she was “disappointed but not surprised” that Youngkin had invited Bell into his administration.

“Politicians like T. March Bell who push misinformation to further their extremist anti-abortion agendas are dangerous for Virginians and should have no place in any part of the Commonwealth’s administration,” Lockhart said.

Youngkin said he stood by his team.

“I believe this is the most extraordinary collection of people to serve Virginians in the history of Virginia — [with the exception of] maybe, maybe back at the beginning of the commonwealth,” he told reporters.

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