MADISON, Wis. (AP) – The University of Wisconsin System’s decision to hire a confidant of Gov. Scott Walker to a newly created, high-paying job raised concerns among at least two members of the Board of Regents, according to emails obtained by The Associated Press under the state’s open records law.
Jim Villa was hired on April 2 as UW’s vice president for university relations, a job that pays $178,000 a year to oversee the university system’s lobbying and public relations efforts. Villa, who started the job Monday, worked on Walker’s 2002 campaign for Milwaukee County executive and later became his chief of staff at the county and an informal adviser during his first run for governor.
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 UW job.
Records obtained by AP show that there were some concerns about hiring the politically connected Villa for the new position. He was chosen by UW President Ray Cross over four other finalists.
Tony Evers, state superintendent and also a member of the Board of Regents, emailed fellow regent John Drew two days after the appointment was announced, saying he was reading “scary” information online about Villa.
“I too have concerns,” Drew wrote back. Drew said he later spoke with a third regent, Chuck Pruitt, and tried to assure Evers about the hiring of Villa.
“Talked to Chuck,” Drew said in an email to Evers. “He says he does not consider Villa an idealogue.”
That wasn’t enough to appease Evers, who is in a nonpartisan position but signed the petition to recall Walker from office and has publicly sparred with the governor over union rights for teachers, the expansion of voucher schools and funding for public education.
“I still remain very skeptical,” Evers wrote Drew about the hiring of Villa.
Evers’ spokesman said he was in a meeting Monday and not immediately available for comment. Drew, whose tenure as a regent ended this month, did not return an email from the AP seeking comment.
Villa declined immediate comment. He was most recently president and CEO of the Commercial Association of Realtors Wisconsin.
The AP asked the state for emails about Villa’s candidacy that were sent or received by the regents, members of the search committee, Cross and others close to the hiring process. Villa was hired by Cross, who has won praise from Walker and a bipartisan group of lawmakers for his approach to the job as UW president since he was selected in January.
In one email, university official Vicki Keegan, who sat in on the interviews with all five finalists, offered her thoughts to Aaron Brower, the interim chancellor at UW Colleges and UW-Extension. Keegan, the executive director of marketing and enrollment at UW Colleges, listed Villa, along with one other finalist, as unacceptable picks.
“I have other thoughts on this but prefer not to put it in an email,” she wrote Brower on March 21. She encouraged Brower to call her back on her cellphone.
Keegan did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Monday.