RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – Former Gov. Doug Wilder has called for Virginia Commonwealth University’s president to be fired and for the state’s watchdog agency to investigate VCU Health’s $73 million payment to get out a development project in downtown Richmond.
VCU Health paid $73 million to back out a $325 million mixed-use redevelopment project to replace Richmond’s defunct Public Safety Building, a site on East Leigh Street between 9th and 10th streets.
Wilder, a professor at VCU’s Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, which is named after him, held a press conference Tuesday at the Virginia State Capitol to address his concerns over the scrapped deal.
“With this amount, how many students are robbed of attending VCU with scholarships,” he said. “How many programs and resources will be cut out of deserving budgets? Most importantly, what actions are being taken to ensure that enormous wastes like these are prevented in the future?”
Virginia’s former governor, who also served as Richmond’s mayor, said he “couldn’t believe it” when he first heard about the payout. Wilder noted details in Richmond BizSense, which first reported the exit payment, claiming that VCU Health misused taxpayer dollars to back out of the deal to avoid a lawsuit.
“I call for the Joint Legislative Audit Review Commission to conduct an immediate investigation into this misappropriation of VCU spending,” Wilder said Tuesday. “I further call for Governor Youngkin to employ the resources of his office to provide transparency to the taxpayers on how and why this financial misbehavior can be tolerated.”
Wilder added that he doesn’t know “how Rao can keep his job,” before saying he was calling for his dismissal.
In a statement, VCU disputed Wilder’s assertions that taxpayer money was used to make the $73 million payment.
“Neither university funds nor state revenues were used to make this one-time payment, which allowed VCU Health to avoid far greater financial obligations and problems in the future,” the statement said.
When the building sale was unanimously approved by Richmond’s City Council in 2021, Rao said in a statement that the project would “play a critical role in supporting a thriving urban center.”
The school said moving forward would have led to “dire long-term financial repercussions,” and that the payout came from the VCU Health operating funds and makes up less than 2.5% of its annual operating budget.
“We agree with Gov. Wilder that this financial outcome is disappointing,” VCU said in its statement. “But by late 2021, construction and other challenges made it simply impossible to build the original project.”
Wilder has had his fair share of issues with Rao, VCU and VCU Health’s president, including in 2022 when he filed a $5 million lawsuit against Rao and other school officials before ultimately deciding to withdraw the case.