Walker accused of cronyism in UW hiring

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Gov. Scott Walker. - PHOTO: Courtesy

The University of Wisconsin System has hired a controversial longtime associate of Gov. Scott Walker to serve in the newly created post of vice president for university relations.

Walker’s critics are crying foul, saying the hiring of Jim Villa for a job he’s unqualified for is yet another example of the governor’s penchant for cronyism.

Villa, who’s been extensively involved in Walker’s campaigns, has no reported background in higher education. In his new job, he earns an annual salary of $178,000 to oversee the university system’s lobbying and public relations efforts. 

Villa’s association with Walker dates back to the governor’s days in the Assembly, when Villa served as his chief of staff. Villa later worked on Walker’s 2002 campaign for Milwaukee County executive and then became his chief of staff at the county. He also served as an informal adviser to Walker during his gubernatorial bid. 

Villa was regularly copied on emails sent out by Walker’s campaign and his county office, according to investigators in the so-called “John Doe” criminal probes of Walker’s Milwaukee county executive staff.

The brunt of Villa’s professional experience has been in real estate. In 2008, he was named president of the Commercial Association of Realtors–Wisconsin, a title he continues to hold. He’s also a lobbyist for Wisconsin Realtors Association.

Villa’s name appeared repeatedly in the more than 28,000 pages of emails and other documents released in conjunction with the John Doe investigation of former Walker aide Kelly Rindfleisch.

Rindfleisch was convicted of campaigning while on duty at the Milwaukee county executive’s office. She was sentenced to one year in jail and three years of probation, but she managed to avoid serving time.

While working for the county, Rindfleisch lived with Villa, apparently in order to meet the residency requirements for county workers that were then in effect. Walker eliminated those requirements after becoming governor.

However, there seems to be no love lost between Rindfleisch and Villa. In one email that surfaced from the John Doe investigation, she said the name of her consulting firm — JVS — was an acronym for “Jim Villa Sucks.”

Villa was not charged in connection with the “John Doe” investigation. But his lobbying firm caught the attention of investigators due to his involvement in bidding on office space for the county Department of Aging.

The Associated Press obtained records showing concerns among university officials about hiring Villa for the new position. UW president Ray Cross chose Villa over four other finalists.

Villa listed Walker, former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson and powerful lobbyist and former Thompson administration official Bill McCoshen as his references when applying for the position.

Tony Evers, superintendent of public instruction of Wisconsin and also a member of the board of regents, emailed fellow regent John Drew two days after the appointment was announced to say he was reading “scary” information online about Villa.

Liberal groups also objected to the appointment, noting that the Walker administration has been repeatedly embarrassed by hiring unqualified “cronies” for high-paying jobs.

“Filling this job with a scandal-tainted figure like Mr. Villa is a $178,000 a year exclamation point to Gov. Walker’s record of corruption, cronyism and failure,” said Scot Ross, executive director of One Wisconsin Now, a liberal group. “Gov. Walker’s personal involvement in securing a newly created executive level job for his longtime confidant and aide continues the shameful willingness of this administration to flout the principles of honest and ethical government in pursuit of political advantage.”

Melissa Baldauff, communications director of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said, “Scandal has followed Jim Villa at every public position he has ever had, and we have every expectation he will bring more problems to the University of Wisconsin System. It’s a shame that the UW System has been put in a place where they feel like they have to hire Scott Walker’s henchman to get the governor and the GOP Legislature to stop abusing them.”

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