CHARLESTON, W.Va. — State Senator Ed Gaunch says he would like nothing better than to find out what caused the delays in the RISE West Virginia long-term flood recovery program and move on.
Gaunch, R-Kanawha, will co-chair a legislative flood committee meeting Thursday at the state capitol where the RISE delays will be discussed once again.
“There’s no witch hunt here,” Gaunch said during a Wednesday appearance on MetroNews “Talkline.” “We just really want to get the answers we need. I’d love to put this in the rearview mirror instead of the windshield and make this program a success.”
The committee hit a roadblock last month when a handful of employees of the Department of Commerce who were scheduled to testify before the committee didn’t show up. The committee found out at the meeting the workers had resigned a few days earlier.
“It’s only natural for us as human beings to think, ‘Well, they’re hiding something.’ I’m not saying they are, I don’t even believe that they are. I just think this thing was mishandled and the question is how was it mishandled and how can we do it better the next time and let’s learn from our mistakes,” Gaunch said.
RISE West Virginia was set up to distribute $150 million in flood recovery funds from the federal Office of Housing and Urban Development. HUD continues to classify the state as being a slow spender of those funds with only a fraction of the amount drawn down so far for housing victims of the June 2016 flood. Gov. Jim Justice recently turned the program over to state Adjutant General Jim Hoyer and some progress has been made but there continue to be questions about construction and certain contracts that were handed out.
Gaunch said he expects to hear Thursday from representatives of the state Auditor’s Office, General Hoyer’s chief counsel Jeff Wood, Gov. Justice’s top lawyer Brian Abraham and former Department of Commerce employee Mary Jo Thompson. Thompson has been subpoenaed to appear. Gaunch said she strongly urged legislators in 2017 to move the RISE program under the control of Commerce.
“In one of those emails she said it was essential that we have this program in Commerce and we would like to know why it was essential, where we dropped the ball and how can we do better,” Gaunch said.
Gaunch said once the flooding committee gets the answers it’s looking forward it can get back to its original mission. He said the committee would like to visit areas that were hard hit in the 2016 flood. He said those visits have been placed on hold for now.
Gov. Jim Justice announced Wednesday evening new recommendations from the Department of Housing and Urban Development about how to proceed with contracts.
The committee meeting begins at 10 a.m. Thursday at the state capitol.