CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The state legislative auditor said Tuesday it may be worth the time of U.S. Attorney Bill Ihlenfeld to review how federal stimulus monies were used to build microwave radio towers in the Mountain State.
Auditor Aaron Allred was asked about a possible federal probe at the state capitol as he was giving a audit report to lawmakers.
“I certainly, personally believe it would be worth an examination by his office as to whether there was any possible fraud involved here. I’m not saying there was. I’m not saying there’s not. I can tell you things look screwy,” Allred said.
The audit found State homeland security director Jimmy Gianato and emergency communications director Joe Gonzalez skipped state purchasing rules and regulations when they authorized Lewis County-based Premier Construction to build 17 towers on that contract that originated in Lewis County.
Allred said instead of bidding out the towers individually or in a state contract, Gianato and Gonzalez used an existing contract Premier had with the Lewis County Commission.
“These towers were piggybacked off the Lewis County contract by other counties in West Virginia,” Allred said. “Lewis County (Commission) told us the state came and told them they desperately needed Lewis County do this on behalf of the state and that it was very important to citizens throughout the state because of the importance of the emergency management communication system.”
Premier previously had a 2009 contract to build one microwave tower in Lewis County. It was that contract that was used for the other towers, financed by $10 million in federal stimulus funds.
Allred said Gianato and Gonzalez told the Lewis County Commission in 2011 it wanted to use the county’s contract because projects had to be “shovel-ready” in order to get stimulus funds. Allred told lawmakers Tuesday there was no such requirement.
The audit said state Purchaser David Tincher became aware of the situation and told Gianato and Gonzalez to stop the project but they did not.
The audit also points out Gonzalez’s previous relationship with Premier and how the company used him as a reference on its bid. Gonzalez lives in Jane Lew.
The audit also said the Lewis County contract was used to move an old state fire tower from Gauley Mountain in Fayette County to Cass Scenic Railroad Park in Pocahontas County to be an interpretive exhibit. The Fayette County Commission gave the tower to the Mountain State Railroad and Logging Historical Association. Gonzalez is a member of the group’s board.
The audit said Premier hired out-of-state companies to build all but one of the towers.
The audit made several other findings and recommendations that it said would hopefully something like what happened with the microwave towers from happening again.
Governor Earl Ray Tomblin issued the following statement Tuesday:
“The Governor appreciates the hard work that went into the investigation and subsequent report and the important issues that have been raised by its findings. The Governor’s Office has been working with the Joint Committee on Government Organization throughout the interim period since the end of the regular session on ways to improve the state’s purchasing laws in light of the problems noted in the BTOP reports. As before, we will embrace these recommendations made by the Legislative Auditor and will ask the Legislature to consider legislation implementing the suggested changes. We will continue to work with the Joint Committee as long as it takes to accomplish this goal.”