CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Legislative leaders are taking exception to comments by the Justice administration’s general counsel over why two Department of Commerce employees resigned and were unavailable to speak before a committee looking into West Virginia flood relief.
“This is not true,” House Speaker Tim Armstead stated in a news release distributed early this afternoon.
“This is absolutely false,” Senator Ed Gaunch stated in a separate news release that was distributed later in the day.
The state’s response to long-term flood relief has been an ongoing and increasingly tense issue. Questions have arisen over the viability of contracts with private contractors, as well as whether the state has proceeded efficiently.
Trust deteriorated even more today.
“It’s insulting to me, and to the other members of the Committee, that the Governor’s Office would continue to be so loose with the truth as it relates to what went so terribly wrong with these flood recovery efforts. There are no points to be scored each time the executive shifts blame.”
During a broad-ranging press conference, officials with the Governor’s Office were asked why no one from the Department of Commerce appeared last week before the Joint Legislative Committee on Flooding. “Who’s minding the store up there, and why couldn’t somebody be there?” asked WCHS reporter Bob Aaron.
About $149 million in long-term flood relief funds from the U.S. Department of Urban Development were being handled by a Department of Commerce agency called Rise West Virginia.
The flooding committee last week wanted to ask questions about Rise. The resignations of Commerce officials Russell Tarry and Mary Jo Thompson, who were on the agenda, caught them by surprise.
Brian Abraham, the governor’s general counsel, responded Monday. He said attendance at the committee had been coordinated through the Speaker’s office and that those attending for the administration were to be Adjutant General James Hoyer and his staff attorney, Jeff Wood.
He said a quarterly report was provided to legislative representatives. “We understood that issue was being taken off the agenda,” Abraham said, adding his belief that flood committee co-chairman Gaunch had followed up on that.
“It was Senator Blair who brought it up that nobody from Commerce was there,” Abraham said.
Blair did press the issue, asking a different Commerce employee to come to the committee’s podium and explain the whereabouts of Tarry and Thompson.
Aaron, the WCHS reporter, followed up with Abraham, noting that Hoyer was at the meeting in his capacity with the National Guard and as Justice’s new point man on making sure flood relief makes better progress.
“They wanted explanations about what happened with the contract, how we got to where we are today, and there was no one there to answer them,” Aaron said.
Abraham responded that Hoyer was prepared to address those issues. But, he said, “They wanted to make a show of it.”
Armstead sent out a response shortly after the press conference ended. He took exception to almost everything Abraham said.
“Earlier today the General Counsel for the Governor’s Office claimed that their office had coordinated with mine to allow Jeff Wood, an assistant to Adjutant General Hoyer, to speak on behalf of the Department of Commerce to the Joint Legislative Committee on Flooding in place of two Commerce Department officials who were scheduled to speak to the committee. This is not true,” Armstead stated.
“I personally did not learn that the two individuals who were supposed to testify to the committee last Tuesday morning no longer worked for the Department of Commerce and would not be present to testify that day until it was brought up in the meeting, which I was sitting in observing.”
Armstead acknowledged that there were conversations with his office and the governor’s that the quarterly report that Abraham mentioned would be taken off the agenda.
But it wasn’t as simple as that, Armstead said.
“During that conversation, Mr. Abraham mentioned that Russell Tarry, one of the Development Office members who had already confirmed he would testify at Tuesday’s meeting, would be leaving state government within the next week or weeks,” stated Armstead, R-Kanawha.
“The Flooding Committee fully expected both Mr. Tarry and Mary Jo Thompson of the state Development Office to appear and testify last Tuesday. We continue to expect Commerce Department officials to appear before the committee at its next meeting, and will issue subpoenas to compel that testimony if representatives continue to fail to show up as we investigate these deeply serious matters.”
Gaunch, in his own statement, corroborated Armstead’s position.
“Today, the Governor’s General Counsel stood before a room of reporters in Charleston and said that it was his understanding that I removed from the meeting’s agenda Question and Answer sessions with Mary Jo Thompson and Russell Tarry, two Department of Commerce officials who were directly involved in overseeing the RISE West Virginia Program,” stated Gaunch, R-Kanawha.
“This is absolutely false. I am not sure from where Mr. Abraham got that understanding, but it certainly was not from me. Like the rest of the Committee and the public, I expected Ms. Thompson and Mr. Tarry to be present for the meeting to answer questions about this program.”
Blair also weighed in on the claim that he had spoken up in the committee meeting only for show.
“I am outraged that the Governor’s attorney would answer a reporter’s question with something he knows to be 100 percent untrue,” stated Blair, R-Berkeley.
“I did not know until the meeting that we would not hear from either Ms. Thompson or Mr. Tarry, and I certainly did not bring it up to ‘make a show out of it.’ To even suggest that what I did was for show, while the Governor’s own Department of Commerce is doing everything in its power to hide from any accountability whatsoever with the RISE West Virginia program, is both laughable and sad.”
Thompson delivered a letter last week to the co-chairmen of the committee on flooding, explaining her situation.
“As you know, the Governor recently transitioned responsibility for the RISE program to General Hoyer, and it is clear the Governor is seeking a new direction at the Department of Commerce,” wrote Thompson, who is a niece to Sen. Joe Manchin and a former constituent services director for Manchin when he was governor.
“At the same time, with a desire to be closer to my elderly parents and return to north central West Virginia, I recently decided to resign my position at the Department of Commerce.”
She apologized about not appearing before the committee.
“I am truly sorry that you were not informed in a timely manner that I had left my post and I apologize for any confusion over my lack of appearance during the interim committee meeting on Tuesday.”
She concluded by saying she would be happy to sit down and talk in the future with Senator Gaunch and his co-chairman, Delegate Roger Hanshaw.
Governor Justice was asked during the press conference whether Tarry and Thompson had resigned voluntarily or if they had been asked to leave.
“No,” Abraham said. “Does that answer the question?”
Justice later elaborated, saying the bigger issues mean not dwelling on what happened with Tarry and Thompson.
“There’s no point in belaboring or badmouthing people that have just left and say ‘Well, did you tell them they had to leave?’ and everything,” Justice said. “We had bad, bad performance out of those people. Bad.”
Blair’s statement after the press conference said he intends to keep asking questions.
He made reference to the possibility of issuing a subpoena for Abraham.
“The people of this state demand answers, and the executive branch cannot run from them forever. I personally will request that Mr. Abraham be called to testify – under oath, by subpoena if necessary – before the next meeting of the Joint Committee on Flooding. Perhaps that will prevent a ‘misunderstanding’ like this from ever happening again.”