Virginia’s new Republican attorney general has fired the University of Virginia’s counsel, who was on leave from the job to work as the top investigator for the U.S. House panel investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol, the attorney and university said.
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.”
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 that Miyares’s Democratic predecessor, Mark R. 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.”
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.
The committee has increasingly become a political flash point as it ramps up its probe and focuses on former president Donald Trump’s role in the attack on the Capitol and his attempts to overturn the election results.
Trump and congressional Republicans have called its work a partisan witch hunt as it issues a steady stream of subpoenas for witnesses connected to the former president and the rally that preceded the pro-Trump mob’s ransacking of the Capitol.
Democrats and the panel’s two Republicans — Reps. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) and Adam Kinzinger (Ill.) — argue that the attack, which was an effort to prevent Congress from certifying Joe Biden as the election’s victor, was a threat to democracy and should be fully investigated.
Cheney and Kinzinger have become outcasts from their party for participating in the probe, and several Republicans are calling for them to be kicked out of the House Republican Conference.
Heaphy’s firing could further inflame the tensions around the committee if it is viewed as an act of political retribution.
Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) said in an interview Sunday that she was distressed to learn that Heaphy was being removed from his position at the University of Virginia.
“I am very concerned about this,” she said. “I am concerned that someone in a position like this (at the university) would be fired for political reasons,” which she said appears to be what happened to Heaphy and perhaps others in her home state.
A spokesman for the committee, Tim Mulvey, said the panel had no comment on Heaphy’s dismissal. But Mulvey said Heaphy would stay with the committee.
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 that he was sorry his time with the University of Virginia was over.
“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.
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 after a directive from Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R).
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.
“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.
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.
Miyares also announced last week that 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.
Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.