CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia’s Commerce secretary is on the job, but unable to say much.
Approached by reporters after a keynote speech at the State Journal’s annual Who’s Who awards on Tuesday, Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher was confined to one response.
“You need to get with Butch Antolini.”
That’s a reference to Gov. Jim Justice’s communications director.
The speaking event at Embassy Suites in Charleston was the first time Thrasher has been at a public event since last week when Gov. Jim Justice left his job in question.
The state Department of Commerce has been a focal point of controversy over its administration of Community Development Block Grants for disaster relief administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Questions have arisen over a contract for an outside consultant to manage the millions of dollars in grant money, the pace of West Virginia’s long-term flood relief and the effectiveness of communication among agencies and with the public.
During three press conferences last week, Justice was asked about Thrasher’s status.
Last Monday, Justice made some statements that prompted those who watched to question whether Thrasher would keep his job.
“There needs to be realignment within the Commerce Department. There absolutely are shortcomings and pitfalls that have happened within Commerce. Now that we know what we know today,” Justice said.
When a reporter asked about the timetable of a Commerce realignment, Justice answered: “Is this afternoon soon enough?”
The Governor’s Office followed up with a statement alluding to upcoming firings and directing inquiries about Commerce — or at least its role in flood relief — to the National Guard.”
“Gov. Jim Justice said today a realignment at the West Virginia Department of Commerce is now underway, there will be terminations, and therefore until that process is completed all media requests for information are to be directed to Major General James Hoyer.”
By Thursday, at the third press conference of the week, the governor still wasn’t elaborating on what a realignment means for the Department of Commerce or whether its secretary has a job.
“If all we’re trying to accomplish here is to create a food fight or decide ‘Are we going to fire Woody Thrasher or not?’ I mean is that really what we should be doing?” Justice asked.
Then, referring both to plans to improve flood response and to a coal markets plan the governor has been advocating, Justice said what becomes of Thrasher is a lesser concern.
“Really and truly what we’re doing is we had a problem, and we’re fixing it. And we’re fixing it in the very, very best way you could possibly do that. And there’s a coal idea here that’s going to impact tens of thousands of people. And we’re worried about whether or not I’m going to fire Woody Thrasher?”
That’s how it’s been for a week, with no clarity.
Reporters tried to get answers from Thrasher face-to-face on Tuesday but with little success.
The Gazette-Mail’s Jake Zuckerman was the first to approach Thrasher after the awards banquet. Thrasher directed him to Antolini.
MetroNews then walked up.
McElhinny: “Sorry, I stepped up late. What was the protocol?”
Thrasher: “Yeah, I think Butch Antolini is who you reference when you want questions answered.”
Zuckerman: “Why is that?”
Thrasher: “You need to get with Butch Antolini.”
Zuckerman: “I don’t quite understand why you can’t answer questions about a program under you.”
Thrasher: “One more time. You need to get with Butch Antolini.”
Zuckerman: “Do you feel that you should not be answering questions about a program that is…
Thrasher: “Jake, I want to be respectful but I’m going to keep telling you the same thing. You need to get with Butch Antolini.”
McElhinny: “I also mean to be asking in a friendly way, but you have an important job. Economic development is important to West Virginia. It seems to me the governor has left it unclear about what your status is. I would like to know perception of your status on behalf of other West Virginians who are hoping there is uninterrupted effort toward economic development.”
Thrasher: “I understand but you need to direct your questions to Butch Antolini.”
McElhinny: “I appreciate a moment of your time and your patience with us.”
Zuckerman: “One last question. This press release, this has your name on it. And the governor has called it inaccurate and now some documents are coming out that his communications director helped draft it. Can you explain it, offer insight?”
Thrasher: “I think you need to reach out to Butch Antolini.”
McElhinny starts a question.
Thrasher: “Come on guys, we know the answer.”
McElhinny: “On the chart of responsibilities, it seems to me that Commerce director is higher than communications director on the flow chart. Have I misperceived? You are an actual cabinet member, according to my understanding.”
Thrasher: “You know that.”
Zuckerman: “Can you talk about how your relationships are with the governor?”
Thrasher: “Jake with all due respect, you need to address inquiries to Butch Antolini.”
John Dahlia of the State Journal: “I just have one question. It’s kind of related but not. When you have these kinds of situations, does it affect economic development in the state? Can it have an impact, good or bad?”
Thrasher: “I think under Governor Justice’s leadership great strides are being made in attracting industries to West Virginia. I’m sure of that.”