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.
“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.”