CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Senate President Mitch Carmichael says he’s frustrated by the Justice administration’s response to questions about the RISE West Virginia disaster relief program.
“It clearly seems like a disconnect,” Carmichael, R-Jackson, said in a telephone interview Friday afternoon. “It’s troubling that they don’t have a handle on managing the various functions of the executive branch of government.”
RISE has spiraled into controversy over more than a week after the revelation that the Governor’s Office halted a contract with a consultant hired to manage millions of dollars in federal long-term disaster funds.
More and more grassroots flood relief organizations have begun to speak out about unmet needs.
West Virginia RISE in the Department of Commerce in the Justice administration is the state agency designated to manage Community Development Block Grants for disaster relief authorized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Of the $149,875,000 West Virginia has available, the state still has $148,736,333 left on hand.
The Governor’s Office and the Department of Commerce have not yet responded to recent requests to explain the situation.
“I’ve been very troubled by the reports that the executive branch seems to be unaware of what is happening within their own department, namely Commerce and Homeland Security,” Carmichael said. “Disaster recovery is an executive branch responsibility.”
Carmichael initiated the telephone interview because he was upset over comments by the Governor’s Office about who was responsible for giving Commerce oversight of the Housing and Urban Development funds.
A bill that passed the Legislature in 2017 created the State Resiliency Office. The Senate Government Organization Committee placed the office within Commerce.
Carmichael says that was at the request of the executive branch, and he has emails to prove it.
“We were asked by the executive branch to move flood recovery efforts to the Commerce department at their behest with the understanding it would create a more timely and expedient recovery to the flood victims,” Carmichael said.
“We gave them the tools of which they asked. The administration at this point has failed to effectively manage the flood recovery efforts.”
The question of Commerce handling the Community Development Block Grants for disaster relief has been covered in several stories by The Charleston Gazette-Mail.
A story published Thursday evening included a comment by Justice administration spokesman Butch Antolini: “Our statement on that hasn’t changed. It was not done at the governor’s behest. I don’t think Commerce was acting rogue anything. You need to understand one thing: This was started by Keith Burdette.”
Burdette was the Commerce secretary in the Tomblin administration when the state first started to pursue the disaster relief money. He instigated the initial contract with Horne LLP to manage the grant.
But the Justice administration has been managing the contract, the federal money and West Virginia flood relief since January 2017.
“I was in the Legislature at the time that occurred. The executive branch under the Tomblin administration simply initiated a contract with a professional organization that has helped with these disasters across the nation. They took the right action,” Carmichael said.
“The ball was passed to the new administration, and it was fumbled.”
Another senator expressing frustration over the situation is Ed Gaunch, who is co-chairman of the Legislature’s Committee on Flooding.
Gaunch said he has struggled to get answers to his questions.
“I can tell you we still have more questions than we have answers,” Gaunch, R-Kanawha, said today on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”
“Every question seems to lead to two or three more questions. We can lead with the initial implementation of the program. What happened? The initial contract with Horne. Why was it questioned by Purchasing? What was wrong with that? Is that contract still in force? Is Horne still on the job, trying to come up with a plan of action?
“We don’t even know, I don’t know today, if that contract is still in force, if we’re operating under it.”
On Wednesday evening, Gov. Jim Justice tweeted that the review has ended and the program is moving back into gear.
The headline for the announcement was “Governor Justice makes good on RISE promise; program running again, families getting keys to new homes.”
“I gave a directive to get this program back up and running so that we can get our hurting neighbors a new home to settle back into,” Justice stated. “I have been on the frontlines with these families since day one, I’ve witnessed the devastation firsthand and I want for those still waiting for help to be taken care of as quickly as possible.”
Gaunch said he would like to know more about the details of that statement.
“The six homes that the governor announced in Greenbrier, Nicholas and Clay, were they already in the pipeline? How many more applications are in the pipeline? What’s the status of those? How close are those to being finished? We just don’t have the answers to any of those questions.”
Gaunch said he has tried to get answers. Like several media outlets around West Virginia, they haven’t been forthcoming so far.
“The blackout seemingly applies to at least my Senate office,” Gaunch said.