CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice today asked for and received the resignation of Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher, the administration announced in a news release.
That means the government arm of West Virginia economic development is without its top three officers. Thrasher has now been forced out, Development Office executive director Kris Hopkins left of his own accord, and Josh Jarrell, the deputy secretary for Commerce, was also pushed out.
Announcing Thrasher’s resignation this morning, the governor expressed his appreciation for Thrasher’s service.
Thrasher has been involved with controversy over the state’s handling of millions of dollars in federal long-term flood relief money. But he earlier was at the center of a China investment deal potentially worth billions of dollars.
“I consider Woody a friend, and he’s done a solid job in the area of economic development, Justice stated today. “Thrasher expressed to me that recent media attention had distracted from what he believed was his core mission, economic development and business opportunities for West Virginia.”
“I hope this allows us to turn our attention to the full recovery of all of the victims of the 2016 flood,” Gov. Justice added.
Thrasher stated that he still believes in Justice’s vision for economic development.
“I accepted this appointment because of my love for the state, and because of Governor Justice’s vision that West Virginia and its citizens should not settle for 50th, Thrasher said. “I want the Governor and this state to be successful, and I welcome the opportunity to help any way I can in the future.”
Thrasher, a successful businessman whose engineering firm bears his name, has been the Secretary of Commerce since the Justice administration took office in January, 2017.
When he was first announced for the position, Thrasher said he would only exit private business for Gov. Jim Justice. And Justice, in turn, called Thrasher the “number one guy I wanted to recruit.”
In recent weeks, Thrasher has been in hot water over questions about the Department of Commerce’s handling of federal long-term relief funds.
The agency 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.
Thrasher, contacted right after last Monday’s press conference by MetroNews, said he had no plan to leave Commerce.
“Relative to my job, I believe we are accomplishing significant things at Commerce and plan on continuing in that role,” Thrasher stated.
This week, surrounded by reporters at a public event at the Embassy Suites in Charleston, Thrasher held his responses to a directive to call the governor’s communications office.
The only question Thrasher felt at liberty to answer fully was one about economic development in West Virginia.
“I think under Governor Justice’s leadership great strides are being made in attracting industries to West Virginia. I’m sure of that,” Thrasher told reporters this Tuesday.
Justice had great things to say about Thrasher when he named him Secretary of Commerce in late December, 2016.
“For months and months, I always felt that if I were humbled by the people of West Virginia and elected governor, without any question, the number one guy I wanted to recruit was Woody Thrasher,” Justice said in a news release at the time.
“He’s been on my mind for commerce secretary for a while because he understands what it takes to diversify West Virginia’s economy. Woody totally shares my vision that what we need is a better marketing and economic opportunity surrounded by jobs, jobs, jobs for the people of West Virginia.”
Thrasher, in turn, stated that he would only want to leave his private business to help Justice.
The Thrasher Group is an engineering and architectural firm that Thrasher began with his father in 1983. It has nearly 400 employees.
“I wouldn’t have done this for anyone other than Governor-elect Jim Justice,” Thrasher stated back then.
“Mr. Justice’s passion for our people inspired me to step away from my businesses and serve the people of West Virginia the best way possible. I look forward to working with the Justice Administration to create new jobs and opportunities. Just like the Governor-elect, my top priority is to turn around West Virginia. We need to think big, and I am excited to work with Governor-elect Justice make his big economic development ideas a reality.”
Thrasher and Justice both advocated for millions more in funding to help the Department of Commerce do its business recruitment work, but each of the past two years the Legislature hasn’t been able to come up with the money.
Thrasher rode a wave of excitement — and also mystery — last November with the announcement of a deal for China Energy to invest $83 billion in projects related to West Virginia natural gas.
Thrasher and the Justice administration still have not fully described the scope of the projects and the related memorandum of understanding has not been released.
Thrasher signed the memorandum of understanding in China in front of President Donald Trump.
During a press conference to describe the China deal, Justice talked about how proud he was of many of his cabinet picks.
“And we’ve got other superstars, and right there’s one of them, Woody Thrasher,” he said that day. “And what a job he’s done. What an incredible job the Commerce department is doing.”
— Brad McElhinny (@BradMcElhinny) November 13, 2017