Season Two of State AG Pulse kicks off with a conversation between Virginia AG Jason Miyares, who took office in Jan 2022, Jerry Kilgore, former Virginia AG, and Siran Faulders, also an alum of the Commonwealth’s AG office. Former state prosecutor Jason shares his proudest achievements in 2022 and his secrets for building an effective team and improving office morale (hint: money talks). He dispels the myth that AGs are anti-business, instead hailing businesses as “poverty destroyers”. Lastly, he provides some words of wisdom for the 16 newly inaugurated AGs who have taken office following the 2022 elections.
PRODUCED IN COLLABORATION WITH:
Meghan Stoppel, Member, Executive Producer
Suzette Bradbury, Director of Practice Group Marketing (State AG Group)
Elisabeth Hill Hodish, Policy Analyst
Welcome to the second season of State AG Pulse. In this season we will be releasing a new podcast episode every two weeks. In addition to providing a deep dive into those headlines that showcase the enormous power and broad authority of state attorneys general, we’ll be talking with new AGs about their transition into office and their priorities. Like last season, we’ll leverage our decades of experience to provide our listeners with insight and perspective to help business leaders better understand and successfully work with state AGs. Listen for new voices as co-chairs Bernie Nash and Lori Kalani share the host mic with other members of the Cozen O’Connor’s State AG Group. So now let’s jump right into this week’s episode.
Well hello. Welcome to season two, episode one of our state attorney general podcast here at Cozen. It’s exciting that after season one we weren’t canceled and we were renewed. So here we are with our first guest and we always bring the best on first. So we’re so happy to have Virginia’s Attorney General Jason Miyares, who had just completed his first year in office. It just seems like two or three years ago that you were inaugurated and took the oath of office for Virginia and I’m sure it feels that way to you as well. But the attorney general’s story is one that all Virginians know now: that he was the first Cuban American elected to the Virginia General Assembly, the first Hispanic elected statewide in Virginia, and the first son of an immigrant elected to be attorney general.
Before, he served in the House of Delegates, he was a state prosecutor much like when I was in the Commonwealth Attorney’s office, prosecuting a variety of crimes, so he brings that background to the attorney general’s office and we’re glad he’s on today.
And joining us today from Cozen O’Connor is Siran Faulders, who is an alum of the Virginia Attorney General’s office. She was there before I was attorney general, but she was in the health section and gave great advice on healthcare issues and all those social thorny issues that we dealt with when I was attorney general. So we’re glad that Siran is on with me today. She’s now a partner at Cozen O’Connor in our State Attorney General Group. So glad to have you with us Siran.
Thank you, Jerry. It’s a pleasure to be here. With both you and Jason, appreciate the introduction.
And I’m Jerry Kilgore. I’m a former attorney general of Virginia from 2002 to 2005 – that seems so long ago to me – and I’m a partner now here at Cozen O’Connor in the State Attorney General Group. So we’re ready to get started asking questions about the Virginia Attorney General’s office today.
Well thank you again, General, for joining us today for our first season. And I agree with Jerry. It’s nice to have the best first. General, during my tenure in the AG’s office, I went through… I had three transitions and they were Republican to Republican to Republican. And I can tell you that even in my much smaller role than yours, I found them to be quite stressful, at least in the first couple of weeks and frankly the first month or so.
So I wanted to start there and ask you whether there was anything that surprised you when you transitioned into the office and what you might share with our listeners about that transition and how you… was it any different because you were taking over from a Democratic attorney general? How did that affect the priorities that you had?
It was interesting and Jerry knows pretty well. He helped head my transition, and so it was interesting the transition period, putting together a team, the vast majority of which had not worked together in that sense. These are lawyers that had been very, very successful in private practice, some of which had taken enormous pay cuts, making a fourth or a fifth of what they were making in the private sector. I don’t know if their spouses were that happy with me, but they were willing to take a pay cut to come work for me. For some reason my transition team was able to convince them, went through a lot of interviews. A job is only as good as the team you have around you and my transition team assembled an extraordinary group of men and women that I am just so flattered to be able to help work with them and help lead them every day.
Coming into a new office, what I found is we have a very different style. I am a people person. I like to walk the halls and say hello to folks and my predecessor at least had a reputation being much more when he was in the office, he would go to his office and he didn’t interact as much. So walking a different floor and just saying hello to folks is the best way to get a feel. One of the best pieces of advice that I got from Jerry was it was important to win the precinct in this building most of all, i.e. the people that work in this building have to be willing and wanting to follow somebody new. And so I made the conscious effort of getting to know folks and walking the floors and it led to some interesting interactions.
One of my more interesting ones was about a week or so into my new job, technically they call the attorneys general’s “General”. I don’t like that title. I’m from Virginia Beach. I hear the word General, I think there’s a Marine standing behind me. And so I usually tell people just… I introduce myself as just Jason and I was in my Consumer Protection Division and said hello to a paralegal and said, “Hi, I’m Jason, how are things going?” And she said, “Nice to meet you.” And then she looked at me and she said, “Do you work here?” And I said, “Yeah, I work on the second floor, which is where my executive suites are.” And she kind of looked at me because she was like, “What division do you even work in?” And so it was kind of a humorous exchange, but it’s been great to get to know folks. I think that’s important.
And some of it is just a change of mentality. I met with my Major Crime Division. I asked them, “What do you need from the second floor to do your job with excellence?” And I remember distinctly them saying that, “We want our badges back,” and Jerry’s a prosecutor, carrying a badge is a great source of pride. And I said, “Why? You’re prosecutors in my Major Crime and Emerging Threats Division, why don’t you have your badges anymore?” And they said, “Our predecessor just didn’t like the fact that we wore a badge. They thought it was too much of a law enforcement symbol and they took them away from us.” So I said, “We’re going to get them back.” I looked up and down the building, we never could find them. They had to reorder them, but so it’s small things like that.
But I think the main thing is letting the people that work for you know that you both care for them and your earnest desires to take care of them. It helps that we have a great working relationship with the governor and that we were able to get in the state budget significant pay raises for our staff attorneys to bring them up to par. And so I’d like to say I had some type of magic sauce on the improvement of morale in this office, but my sneaky suspicion is a lot of it is tied to the fact we’re able to get them significant pay raises. That probably had more than anything to do with it, with improved morale here in the building.
Well I listened with keen interest, some of the things that you said that you were doing in your first year with folks that work in your office. I can certainly appreciate the value, Jason, of walking the halls and getting to know those people. That’s the way of course that you can encourage loyalty and you certainly have an excellent staff around you. The people that you’ve hired, and I know some of the people that have stayed also, particularly in the consumer protection world, are very loyal to you and I know that you are proud of the work that they’re doing.
Was there a particular approach to staffing the office that you took? Did you have certain, not just people in mind, obviously you wanted to hire the best and most qualified people, but… And I know Jerry’s there, so maybe he was whispering in your ear, but was there a particular approach that you used when you were considering staffing of the office, whether it was in the criminal section? I know that you even hired a Democrat in your criminal section and she’s doing a fantastic job, I’ve had the opportunity to work with her. But wondered if you might expound a little bit upon your approach to hiring there?
Well, I wanted people that were high energy and hungry. I have never… This is just my general philosophy, I don’t really care what law school you go to. I care about your work ethic and I care about your character. You give me character and a work ethic and that will trump any law school that you’ve ever attended. And that’s what I have personally found in my own legal career. That’s why I wanted people that were hungry. I wanted people that wanted to make their mark. And so we found that, I think, and Jerry and the team did a good job screening candidates to get the finalists for these positions and then putting them in the best positions to succeed. Some of them had some background in the public sector, but a lot did not. Steven Popps who heads up my civil litigation came from McGuire Woods.
Others, my chief deputy, my number two and my right hand man, Chuck Slemp was the Commonwealth’s attorney in Wise County and he was a great combination of, he’s a great lawyer, but he has a great common sense and ability to foster great relationships with the General Assembly and the governor’s office, which I think is critically important since we interface so much. You mentioned Theo Stamos. Theo Stamos is a legendary prosecutor. She was the Democrat Commonwealth’s attorney in Arlington. She was at Department of Justice, but she had a reputation of being fearless and I wanted her to head my special investigative unit, which we used to… she was my point person on the Loudoun County school investigation. And so I think in her regard, she had two qualities that I admired. She was fearless and she was deliberate. That’s what I wanted in somebody in that role.
We hired the former Commonwealth’s attorney in Loudoun to be my criminal chief. And so we’ve had some really good success. Andrew Ferguson, our solicitor general, was general counsel with Mitch McConnell and had clerked at the United States Supreme Court. So he was an incredibly hard worker. He was tireless. And so those are kind of the qualities. But listen, you don’t know until you get in the room. I’ve been really blessed beyond measure to have a group of senior leaders that have such a different background legally, but they are so willing to work together and pitch in where the other needs help. And I’ve been really pleased.
Well, I have to tell you that my experience personally working with many of the people that you’ve hired, those two qualities that you said, fearless and deliberate, those are definitely two of the qualities that I’ve seen in your staff. So I congratulate you on doing an excellent job in getting great folks in place.
Well, you have certainly had one heck of a year and I could list many of your accomplishments. It has been a very busy year. You had a broad variety of issues and that you have tackled. And I wondered if you might just share with the audience, what are you most proud of when you take a look back on 2022?
My team put together, they put a highlight reel together of our year, and I was almost surprised at just how much we had gotten done. Just off the top of my head, we received a total of over a billion dollars in settlements on different opioid law suits. That’s some of the largest settlements we’ve ever received in Virginia. That’s money that doesn’t come to my office. We worked with the General Assembly, set up the opioid abatement authority to get that money back to localities. We are, like so many other areas, dealing with the scourge of addiction and depression that has gripped our nation. COVID was hard. Getting through COVID was hard. Being socially isolated for close to two years was difficult. And a lot of people during that time period began to struggle with depression and addiction. We’re still dealing with that and that I’m convinced that’s part of the reason why we have one of the lowest labor workforce participation rates that we’ve had in modern history. I think that’s huge.
We launched One Pill Can Kill, which is our public service announcement on the opioid fentanyl crisis. We launched, with the governor, Operations Ceasefire, which is a very, very targeted prosecution going after repeat violent offenders that are using guns in these felony counts and prosecuting them in federal court. So we have cross designated several assistant attorney generals that are in the US Attorney’s office. I think that’s hugely important. I think one of my roles is to make sure there’s not federal overreach. And I think one of the frustrations we’ve seen is a lot of these rules and regulations that get promulgated out of Washington that have the same full force of impact as a law, but it’s never voted on by your congressman or senator. We obviously saw the OSHA mandates. We just joined one recently where NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] of all things had said that that commercial fishermen had to, through their own pocket, pay hundreds of dollars for every time they go out for a monitoring device.
And it was just a regulation promulgated. I think part of the reasons why our democracy is a little bit frayed these days is people in Washington care… and I’m not trying to offend anybody who’s a former congressman, I’m just being honest in my opinion … people in Washington care more about going on cable news networks and being a talking head than actually legislating. And they’re happy to see these administrative agencies and promulgate these rules and regulations. The reality is if something gets promulgated that hurts a business your congressman or senator never get to vote on it and your governor can complain about it, but the only individual that actually could take it to court for a violation of the Administrative Process Act or any other reason is your state attorneys general. I think it’s why as the administrative state has exploded, it’s why your state attorneys general have gotten so, so much more important.
Obviously we renewed our focus on crime. I can’t really talk much about that, because we have several grand juries. We had a year-long grand jury investigation, the grand jury report, which is public, anybody can read it. And we received several indictments from the Loudoun County School Board assaults. But I also think it’s important, one of the things I’m proud of, is the way our office treats those that are under investigation. I heard from a lot of people when I was a candidate, they felt frustrated when they would be investigated by the attorney general’s office that it was oftentimes, they felt it was like the Alice-In-Wonderland system of justice where the Queen of Hearts says, “First comes the punishment, then comes the trial,” and they would have an investigation and nobody would tell them what happened. And I think 90% of life’s problems can be traced to poor miscommunication.
So making sure my Consumer Protection Division knows how important it is to communicate with anybody who happens to be under investigation. And if it’s resolved, resolve it so people can move on. And if not, let’s try to find a resolution that protects consumers but also is fair and equitable for the business involved. And so I think that that has been good change in our office as well. So it’s been a busy year one, done a lot with our governor and a lot of other issues. Obviously we’re also currently investigating what happened with Fairfax with the national merit issue as well with our civil rights division. And so proud of what we’ve done, proud of the record settlements. Look forward to next year.
Well, I would say, Jason, that one of the things that people don’t realize, I don’t know that voters really realize this, is the strong intersection between the attorney general’s office and the business community. Can you talk about what you would hope businesses would take away from your first year in office?
Well, I think my hope is that they understand that we’re reasonable. I don’t view businesses as the enemy. I view them as poverty destroyers. They help destroy poverty by hiring. They do more to alleviate poverty than a government program. And I’ve said before, other than hearing the words, “I love you,” the most important words the person could probably hear in their life is, “You’re hired.” That can have a multi-generational impact on somebody and on their children. And so my attitude in the General Assembly to now has always been how do you make it easier for businesses to say those amazing transformative words to more people? And I’ll give you an example on big tech with data breaches. It’s the only area in our society where somehow it’s okay to blame the victim. There’s no other crime in America where it’s okay to blame the victim of the crime except on data breaches.
And so what we try to tell people is, “Listen, if there’s a data breach, we want to work with you. We want to find the bad actors. We’re not going to do some press conference saying we’re going to go after your corporation because you had a data breach, because you’ve been the victim of a crime.” With one caveat. What I always tell my staff is, bad news doesn’t get better with age. If there is one, tell your customers. Where my office has dinged people, has been when they have a data breach. There’s information, private information out on the dark web being sold and they never told their customers they had a problem. That’s where you get in trouble. But if you try to do the right thing, you’ve been the victim of a crime. I want to work with you, not against you. And I think that’s an important, say, shift in mindset with a business community.
Well, since you talked about that, one of the hottest issues around the nation is the protection of privacy, protection of consumer privacy. And Siran and I are familiar with, everybody talks about the California model and the Virginia model, and those are really the two models out there that states are fashioning their privacy laws after. The California model, anybody can sue for privacy, going to bring a lot of lawsuits to California. But the Virginia model, it rests with you, the attorney general, to enforce those actions. So as the law went into effect on January 1st for Virginia to step up and start protecting consumers’ privacy, I think you hit on it somewhat, but what would you like for businesses to know out there? What role will you play? How active do you think the privacy team will be in working with businesses, targeting businesses, however you want to put it?
Well there was a new law that passed. It was the Virginia privacy law that went into effect January 1. So it’s new, it’s not even a little over two weeks old. We’re in the process of hiring two new staffers that will be part of that. The law gives Virginians more control over their personal data and more cybersecurity. But at the end of the day, what we’re going to do is, they have certain rights, but the way the law was written is the people that can enforce that, is my office. It’s not the private actor that can enforce it. It’s actually through our Office of the Attorney General. And so listen, we’re kind of in this unique world. We’re the most connected, but disconnected in some ways we’ve ever been in society where 50% of Americans don’t even know the name of their neighbor, but they’re on this device all the time.
And I think what that means is that we want to protect the data privacy, we want to empower them [businesses]. And we ask everybody to be just good corporate actors. I know it’s going to be a little bit of a headache for a lot of the companies that are multistate companies because obviously California, their privacy law is different than ours, and Virginia, you have the potential, unless there’s federal legislation of 40, 49 or 50 states having different standards.
But I think Virginia’s very reasonable [and] protects the consumers. I think it’s very reasonable for the business community to be able to navigate. But the principal primary enforcer of the new Virginia privacy law that went into effect January 1 is the attorney general’s office. And that’s why we’re staffing up to handle that.
I was just going to jump in quickly to say that from what I’ve been reading about it, Jason, it really is… People say that it’s going to be the model for future privacy legislation over California for various reasons, some of which you just addressed.
But I think another piece that’s so important is that there is… If you were to send a business a letter and call them out on something that was problematic, there is a 30-day cure period. And so that is obviously very helpful for businesses and music to, I think frankly, much of what you’ve just said about not viewing businesses as the enemy. And I loved… I had not heard this example of businesses as poverty destroyers. I think that’s music to the ears of many businesses because there is quite a bit of frustration when an AG comes knocking on your door in terms of AGs really saying, “Well, this is the issue that I see, here is the problematic conduct. Please explain to me whether this happened/it didn’t happen.”
So I do think that statute, which apparently is only eight pages long compared to California’s, I don’t know how many pages, but it does appear from what I’ve been reading…
You can almost guarantee anything in California is probably going to be more onerous and longer than what you see in Virginia.
I think Siran, there were 16 new Attorney Generals elected this year. So they took the oath of office like this week or last week, and you’ve [Jason] taken it a year [ago]. So you’re got instant seniority now in the AG world, sort of like being back when you were in the General Assembly, you hope for big turnover so you can move up in your seniority. So talk to Siran and me about what advice you have for the new AGs, the 16 new ones. What’s the dos and don’ts of serving in your first year and is there anything that you wish you had done differently?
I would say that, I’m reading a biography of Samuel Adams that’s out called The Revolutionary. And the author made this observation about Sam Adams, who was a former governor of Massachusetts and one of the principal voices behind the American Revolution. But he said, “Sam Adams had a unique quality as a leader. He recognized where he wasn’t an expert in certain areas.” And I would think I would take that and extrapolate, that’s probably the single most important quality… My staff has heard me say a million times that I never feel that I’m the smartest person in any room I ever walk into. But I’m smart enough to know when I hear good ideas and whether it’s my legislative package, whether it’s better ways to operate in this office, whether it is how to handle different ways of handling communications, recognizing those good ideas. And what it means is hire people that are smarter than you.
I mean, I hate to be that blunt, but that would be my simple advice. Hire people that are better subject matter experts because you simply cannot… I have 21 sections in my office. I cannot be a subject matter expert on every issue. But what I need is, when I need information, I need counsel. I want people that absolutely know that area of the law, whether it’s healthcare or education, like the back of their hand.
And that also means hire people that are smarter than you, that aren’t afraid to tell you if you’re wrong. Because I think that’s critically important as well. There’s a great verse in Proverbs that says that in an abundance of counsel, there is wisdom. And I think that has guided me well throughout my life, putting people in that are very, very smart with a lot of wisdom that have been able to give me good counsel over the course of my career and it has helped me immeasurably.
And so some of that means, have a sense of humility that you don’t know everything. There’s better lawyers than you, there’s smarter lawyers than you. There’s smarter people in your office. Surround yourself with people that are [smarter], so they can give you the best counsel and advice moving forward because as you know Jerry, when an emergency pops up and you got to make a tough call, you better have the absolute best information that you possibly can in front of you to make the best informed decision. And that’s what I feel like I have with my team and that’s why I’m proud of them.
I just wanted to thank you for your incredible insights, for sharing all your experiences and really frankly, to congratulate you on one heck of a year. I know that our listeners and frankly particularly the business community, will be pleased to hear all of your observations during this podcast. So thank you. Thank you. I hope you’ll come back again and wish you great luck during the very busy General Assembly session. And to our listeners, please stay tuned for the next episode where we will go behind the scenes to examine an important state AG issue and the impact it will have.
You have been listening to State AG Pulse, brought to you by Cozen O’Connor’s State AG Group. Research for this podcast was provided by our associates, Ryan Bottegal, Hannah Cornett, Gianna Puccinelli, Keturah Taylor and Emily Yu, as well as our policy analyst, Elisabeth Hill Hodish. If you enjoyed this week’s episode, please leave us a five-star rating and review. This will help our visibility and will allow other listeners to learn about the podcast. And of course, please tune in again in two weeks for our next episode.