CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Coming off revelations that Richwood failed to properly use up to $3.1 million in federal disaster money, West Virginia needs to provide better oversight for disaster-struck communities, state Auditor J.B. McCuskey said.
“The solution here, is our state government needs to do a much better job of providing guidance to our smaller municipalities and counties in the event of a flood,” McCuskey said today on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”
“What we know is this is going to happen again. There will be another flood that devastates another small town in another part of West Virginia. And how we react to the information that we presented is what’s really going to define this.”
The Auditor’s Office spent more than a year researching and compiling the 189-page report that was released Friday. This is the latest in a series of controversies involving how West Virginia has handled federal flood relief money.
The investigation concluded the City of Richwood “engaged in conduct that was incompetent, inattentive and fiscally irresponsible.”
Three current and former City of Richwood officials were arrested and arraigned on Friday morning on charges connected to the city’s finances. In addition, the Auditor said former Mayor Bob Henry Baber had been out of town but was expected to turn himself in to State Police.
McCuskey said he did not want to minimize the misdeeds of local officials. But he also said the community needed more guidance from state leaders.
Richwood was among the hardest-hit communities during the catastrophic flood of 2016.
“If you were to go to any one of these small towns that were affected in a very massive way in the 2016 floods, I doubt that any of them would say that our state disaster recovery team had a level of preparedness that was appropriate,” McCuskey said.
The Auditor’s report outlined two recommendations about oversight of federal flood dollars by the state Division of Homeland Security.
Recommendation 1: The West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety/DHSEM must evaluate the manner in which FEMA monies are received and projects closed out to ensure timely payments. DMAPS must also review and consider instituting new and better oversight of sub-recipient counties and municipalities that receive FEMA monies.
Recommendation 2: Instead of forcing sub-recipient to hire outside consultants, the State of West Virginia (by and through multiple agencies) should establish a guidebook and mandate annual training for counties and municipalities relating to the management of public monies in the aftermath of an emergency.
Former state Homeland Security Director Jimmy Gianato retired on Friday, the same day the report about Richwood was released.
Gianato lost that title last October, but remained with the state as a homeland security adviser. One of his remaining responsibilities was supposed to be formulating strategy on federal hazard mitigation grants.
After Gianato’s demotion, a report by the state Legislative Auditor revealed that Gianato had failed to tell his supervisors that FEMA had established heightened oversight of grant money flowing through West Virginia.
Concern by the Federal Emergency Management Agency led to the state being placed under tighter financial restrictions over the past few years.
“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 Legislature’s Performance Evaluation and Research Division last year.
FEMA wanted West Virginia to establish greater controls when federal flood dollars pass through the state and on to sub-recipients like municipalities, county governments or school boards.
In the 2015 letter, FEMA wrote, “Without proper oversight of sub-recipients, WVDHSEM cannot provide evidence that Federal Funds are being effectively managed or utilized in accordance to federal regulations.”
FEMA Region III Director MaryAnn Tierney described the agency’s position during a November interview with MetroNews.
“We felt the documentation collection and review process was inadequate and it was a material weakness that created risk and the potential for deobligations in the future,” Tierney said.
“They were not monitoring applicants effectively.”
Richwood Mayor Chris Drennen, who was charged Friday with embezzlement, proclaimed her innocence in a Facebook post on Sunday afternoon. She is accused of taking her city pay plus thousands of additional dollars in payment for flood relief work.
Drennen also wrote in the post that communities like Richwood should have received more guidance from state officials.
“Lest we forget, the entire West Virginia Department of Homeland Security is being called to task by FEMA for guidance and direction they failed to provide numerous applicants throughout the state as well as not disbursing funding that has already been awarded to them,” Drennen wrote.
“Richwood is not the only town facing these very same issues, but will be the first to be targeted in what will ultimately come to light as a massive shifting of blame in order to avoid financial responsibility for recovery.”
Drennen made a similar point on Friday following her arraignment in magistrate court.
“One of the biggest issues, particularly for smaller municipalities, is that we’re not prepared before a disaster,” she said.
She added, “I feel like there were ideas that were put forth that maybe were not fully understood, maybe not fully explained. The system definitely needs to be better. We need to better prepare people to be able to deal with these disasters.”
Richwood Mayor Drennen comments on arrest https://t.co/aK1uMuxhuP
— Brad McElhinny (@BradMcElhinny) March 29, 2019