Tim Kaine Did Favors for University President Wife After Senate Ethics Warning

Tim Kaine and wife Anne Holton (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
January 10, 2024

Nothing will stop Sen. Tim Kaine from helping his wife—not even a warning from the Senate ethics office.

In 2019, the Senate Ethics Committee cautioned the Virginia Democrat against participating in events at George Mason University, where his wife, Anne Holton, served as interim president. But Kaine helped Holton and her school in other ways, according to emails obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

In one November 2020 email to the senator and his director of scheduling, the contents of which are redacted, Holton explicitly asked Kaine for a "favor." At the request of his wife, Kaine lobbied the Biden White House to appoint her chief of staff, Dietra Trent, to lead the administration's initiative on historically black colleges, the emails show. Kaine also introduced a bill in June 2020 to increase emergency coronavirus relief funding to universities following an email exchange with Holton weeks earlier.

Kaine's actions provided a financial and PR boost to George Mason University, where Holton now serves as professor of public policy and education. The school has received $121 million in emergency pandemic funding, including $68 million to make up for revenue lost during the pandemic. And George Mason in press releases at the time touted the White House appointment of Trent.

It's not the first time Kaine has faced conflict of interest allegations regarding his wife's employer. Kaine, a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, obtained $3.5 million worth of earmarks in 2022 and 2023 for George Mason University, according to a 2023 report.

Kaine, who is running for reelection this year, has scrutinized conservatives over potential conflicts involving their spouses. Kaine and 14 other Senate Democrats called for ethics reforms at the Supreme Court last year, claiming that conservative Justice Clarence Thomas failed to recuse himself from cases "implicating his spouse's political activities." Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D., R.I.), who joined Kaine in pushing for Thomas's recusal, has also proposed climate change legislation that helps his wife's green energy company, the Free Beacon reported.

Kaine has been warned about his ties to George Mason University, according to emails. In 2019, a Kaine aide wrote that the Senate Ethics Committee advised the senator against doing events solely with George Mason University.

"The Ethics Committee has advised [Kaine's office] not to do anything with just GMU," the aide wrote in a Sept. 26, 2019, email exchange with Kaine and Holton.

But emails show Kaine and Holton discussing initiatives related to George Mason University, as well as the school's financial prospects.

On March 12, 2020, Holton wrote to Kaine and his chief of staff that a "state of emergency declaration" related to the coronavirus pandemic "will help us financially e.g. on some of our contractual obligations." Then-Virginia governor Ralph Northam (D.) declared a state of emergency the same day.

In May 2020, Holton sent Kaine an email entitled "IRS Rules on CARES Act Student Emergency Grants." Weeks later, Kaine introduced the Coronavirus Relief Flexibility for Students and Institutions Act, which modified the CARES Act to provide "flexibility" to universities on how they spend emergency funds awarded for the pandemic.

A spokeswoman for Kaine said that the senator consulted with the Senate Ethics Committee "about how to balance representing George Mason, the largest state university in Virginia, with his wife's work there."

"Senator Kaine's interaction with the Senate Ethics Committee was at his initiation and was not part of an investigation. He has followed the guidance to treat George Mason as he would any other state higher education institution," the spokeswoman told the Free Beacon.

George Mason, which boasts an endowment of nearly $180 million, received $121 million in emergency funds through the pandemic, according to federal records. Of that, $53 million was awarded in the form of student aid, while $68 million was granted to the school to counterbalance lost revenue. In 2021, the school reported that it lost $6.4 million in parking revenue and $9.1 million in revenue from student room and board.

Kaine's office denies that the senator gave special treatment to George Mason University.

"Kaine's recommendations, legislative efforts, and votes are based on what's best for Virginia—they are not dictated by any individual, including his wife," the spokeswoman told the Free Beacon.

The Virginia senator recommended Trent for the White House historically black college position "because she was superbly qualified," the spokeswoman said. "His working relationship with Dietra Trent long predated his wife's work at George Mason."

Holton did not respond to a request for comment.