CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Just a few months ago, Gov. Jim Justice gave a public declaration of support for Jimmy Gianato, West Virginia’s longtime and often controversial emergency services director.

The governor was asked in a June 15 press conference about complaints by the mayor of Clendenin that federal grants were moving too slow to help with flood relief and that Gianato hadn’t done enough to help.

“She’d like to see him removed or replaced. Does he remain in good standing with this administration?” asked WOWK-TV reporter Mark Curtis.

“Absolutely,” Justice responded, “Jimmy remains in good standing with me.”

A lot has changed since then.

Gianato still remains with the state, but he has been removed as director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. He retains his other title, homeland security adviser.

In the past week, questions have arisen over heightened disaster grant funding oversight by the Federal Emergency Management Agency during Gianato’s tenure.

Mitch Carmichael

“If he’s culpable, certainly there should be ramifications,” Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said this week.

Through the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, Gianato has been invited to comment to MetroNews about recent events. A call to Gianato’s cell phone went to voicemail.

Legislative scrutiny

Fresh controversy was kicked off this week by a report by legislative auditors

The report revealed that West Virginia is alone among states in having heightened requirements when it oversees federal grant money going to sub-recipients, such as local governments.

“The federal action is the result of several years of DHSEM’s inability to comply with grant requirements and failure to remedy identified issues,” wrote the state’s Performance Evaluation and Research Division.

The penalty is called mandatory manual reimbursement.

West Virginia’s higher education system was threatened with the same financial punishment last year when the state missed an audit deadline for the third year in a row.

That threat prompted a stern statement from Governor Justice: “When I find out who is responsible heads will roll.”

With the FEMA sanctions, heads seem to have remained generally intact.

Pressure from FEMA

After years of warnings, FEMA wrote in a Nov. 12, 2015, letter to Gianato that the state’s accountability just didn’t measure up. FEMA would have to impose additional steps to assure its grant money was being used properly.

FEMA and state officials indicate only Puerto Rico also has to go through those steps.

MaryAnn Tierney

“It is an unusual enforcement step the agency has in its toolbox to help applicants become compliant with our requirements,” FEMA Region III Administrator MaryAnn Tierney said this week.

FEMA and Gianato have been going back and forth for several years now about the situation. There are letters from 2015, 2016 and 2017 and the current year, all documenting where West Virginia stands.

FEMA’s Tierney said the communication was specifically with Gianato because he had been designated as the point person.

“The governor designates an authorized representative for our grant program,” Tierney said. “That is who our correspondence is directed to.”

Asked whether the problems should have been kicked up the chain of command, Tierney described that decision as a matter for the state.

“I’m not going to comment on how the state handles its internal policies,” Tierney said.

Chain of command

The trouble is, Gianato’s bosses have been saying they were unaware of the FEMA action.

Joe Thornton

Joe Thornton was cabinet secretary over Military Affairs and Public Safety from 2010 through 2017.

Thornton, in a signed letter to the legislative auditor, said Homeland Security and Emergency Management never notified him.

“I can say I have no recollection receiving notice from any parties mentioned and I also have no correspondence in my files from November 2015 through January 2017 notifying me of any such corrective actions or restrictions placed on DHSEM,” Thornton wrote.

Jeff Sandy

His successor, Jeff Sandy, took a similar position when testifying before lawmakers this week. He said he had never been presented with the November, 2015, letter from FEMA.

“There was no cc on that letter. It was never received,” Sandy said.

Sandy said he checked with the governor’s office, specifying Deputy Chief of Staff Ann Urling, and no one there was aware either.

“It’s very disappointing to my staff and the governor’s staff that we were unaware of that letter,” Sandy said.

Representatives from HUD, FEMA and the Justice administration gathered on Nov. 7, 2017, for a meeting of the minds that was described in FEMA Region III’s newsletter, Forward Recovery. 

The meeting, which included Governor Justice, was described as a discussion of unified strategy for using federal disaster funds. But no one has said whether FEMA’s sanctions were mentioned that day.

Sandy, speaking to legislators this Sunday evening, did indicate broader recognition of problems going way back.

“Early on in the Justice administration, we fully realized there was an issue going on with Homeland Security — the failure to adapt, the failure to respond, the failure to fulfill its requirements to our citizens.”

He said that led to the installation of Michael Todorovich, a retired member of the National Guard, first as deputy director for Homeland Security and Emergency Management director and then as the director.

“We feel Colonel Todorovich has Homeland Security going in the right direction,” Sandy said.

Questions remain

West Virginia MetroNews has twice reached out to representatives of the Governor’s Office with followup questions, but has received no response.

The questions were these:

Secretary Sandy said neither he nor the Governor’s Office was aware of a 2015 letter from FEMA describing that action. Is that also the position of the Governor’s Office?

Have any representatives of the Governor’s Office asked representatives of the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management why that information was not passed along? Has the Governor’s Office asked that question of FEMA?

How has the state dealt with the manual reimbursement? Has it caused cash flow issues? Has it had practical effects such as slowing down relief efforts or slowing payments to vendors?

Was the change in Jimmy Gianato’s job description directly related to this situation? Does the Governor’s Office continue to have confidence in Mr. Gianato’s work?

Timeline of changes

Although the Governor’s Office has said little, the Justice Administration has made several recent moves.

On Oct. 9, the legislative auditor sent its question about FEMA to Joe Thornton, the former state emergency management director.

By Oct. 23, without a public announcement, Governor Justice signed a letter making Todorovich the director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

The same day, a letter went out from Justice to West Virginia Adjutant General James Hoyer, giving him oversight of Gianato, who would still be state homeland security adviser.

Also that day, MetroNews got wind of the change and called for confirmation. Hoyer made plans to call the next morning and confirmed Gianato had a new role.

Hoyer said Gianato would still be playing a significant role with Homeland Security, including working ahead on issues like hazard mitigation and federal funding.

Notably, Gianato will have a strategic role in drawing down federal grant money.

“Most of Jimmy’s responsibilities will be focused on how do we identify what Congress is going to do with mitigation dollars and how do we in West Virginia get our fair share of that to make sure ‘If we clean out these streams it prevents these hundred houses from flooding the next time,’” Hoyer said.

By Nov. 5, less than a week before the legislative auditor’s findings were released, the Governor’s Office sent a letter to FEMA designating a new point of contact.

From now on, FEMA would be dealing not with Jimmy Gianato but with Michael Todorovich instead.

“Please accept this letter as my approval for Director Michael L. Todorovich’s “Delegation of Authority Letter” for all WV FEMA (non-disaster) grants,” the governor wrote.

“Included with this delegation of authority is the approval for Director Todorovich to sign, submit, and full access to all WV FEMA (non-disaster) grants.”

FEMA’s Tierney said she already notices improvement.

“I feel very positive about the direction Homeland Security and Emergency Management is heading in,” she said.