CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Woody Thrasher, last year at the focus of controversies over long-term flood relief and now a candidate for governor, is opening up about what happened with West Virginia’s recovery.
Thrasher was pushed out as West Virginia’s Commerce Secretary last June.
“When I was dismissed, I made a very conscious decision that I was not going to weigh in,” he said this week.
“I obviously was upset about allegations that were made toward me and toward my staff, but I felt the most important thing was trying to get folks back in homes in flood-impacted areas. So I just felt it was best to walk away and not say anything.”
That changed today when Thrasher had a series of separate interviews in Charleston with West Virginia media outlets about flood relief.
The MetroNews interview in Charleston lasted about an hour. Present along with Thrasher was his campaign spokeswoman, Ann Ali.
Thrasher expressed frustration over the events of last spring, including a “pause” that stopped relief right as it was getting started. And he is troubled by where progress stands now.
“Look, when these kinds of things happen, you’ve got to get people back in their houses,” he said. “You’ve got to be on a mission to get it done.
“This is a serious problem for the citizens of West Virginia. If you’re living without a house, imagine that for two years. I mean, imagine that. It’s terrible. There has to be a great sense of urgency to get things done, and I don’t feel that urgency.”
The comments caught the attention of his old boss, Gov. Jim Justice, who addressed questions from some of the same media during a broad-ranging press conference at the Capitol.
Justice and Thrasher are set to square off in the Republican primary for West Virginia governor.
Justice made reference to this week’s announcement that U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart will head up an investigation of how federal flood dollars have been used in West Virginia.
“You talking about a political opponent. I don’t want to get into all that and everything,” Justice said.
“Coming out now and saying ‘Well, you know, I didn’t do this and I didn’t do that, all the evidence is with the U.S. Attorney right now. The evidence is unbelievable, and all the actions of a lot of people, what they were doing. It was a long ways from being right.”
Thrasher said he supports that scrutiny.
“Absolutely,” he said. “One hundred percent.”
Controversy over flood relief was the major factor in Thrasher’s departure.
West Virginia had been approved for $150 million in disaster relief money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the state Commerce department was in charge of using it.
“That was a big-ticket item,” Thrasher said.
The money has been meant to help people recover from the catastrophic 2016 flood that killed 23 people, destroyed houses and ruined infrastructure.
The groundwork to manage the big grant had been set by the prior administration, and Thrasher came aboard as Commerce Secretary in 2017.
Recognizing the enormous amount of money and the breadth of the problem, state had contracted with a national consultant, Horne LLP.
At first, Thrasher said Thursday, he was wary of that contract. He also said he sometimes grew impatient with how long it could take to complete environmental reviews to start the work.
But over time, he said, “I developed confidence in our consultant.”
An Action Plan required by Housing and Urban Development was developed by August, 2017.
Some time passed for preparation to execute the plan and to take applications from citizens.
“I think that was a period of time that was necessary to make sure all those Is were dotted and Ts were crossed relative to conforming with HUD regulations,” he said.
“Could it have faster? Maybe. First time we’d ever done it. Didn’t have any experience. I know these things take longer than they should, but I was not terribly concerned that this thing was dragging. In fact, my perception was this thing was not moving, not perfectly, but pretty well.”
West Virginia made its official request to start using the HUD money on Jan. 29, 2018.
HUD gave its OK on Feb. 20, 2018.
About that time, behind the scenes, the Governor’s Office began to question change orders to the contract with Horne valued at millions of dollars.
Thrasher on Thursday recognized the change order involved a lot of money, but said it was necessary to keep on moving with flood relief.
At the press conference at the Capitol today, Justice administration general counsel Brian Abraham said Thrasher crossed the line by pushing for the change order to go on through.
It was still February when the Governor’s Office ordered a “pause” on the contract.
“You can’t do that,” Thrasher recalled saying. “We just received approval from HUD, like last week; we’ve got construction crews mobilized on the site, ready to begin housing construction; we can’t stop that program.”
Just a few weeks after that, Thrasher said, he asked his staff to compose a memo about the results of halting the work.
The memo dated March 26, 2018, contended the pause affected progress for homes where construction had started, delayed ceremonies for applicants who were set to sign on as homeowners and slowed down environmental reviews that were part of the recovery process.
When MetroNews obtained the memo and wrote about it last year, Abraham of the Governor’s Office called to question it.
“I say we question the validity of it, given the timing and given the fact there had been no movement in spending the money for months and months,” Abraham said then.
This week, Thrasher said everything in that memo turned out to be true.
“If you will read it closely, you will see that almost all of them have come to fruition,” Thrasher said, handing over a paper copy of the memo. “What they predicted would happen did happen.”
Weeks and weeks later, Thrasher said, the Governor’s Office called wanting the work to start.
“It wasn’t for over three months until they got back with us and said ‘OK, start the program again; we want to have 50 homes under construction by the end of the week.’ Well, I said, ‘You can’t do that.'”
During those weeks that passed, the Governor’s Office later said, an attorney had been looking into the Commerce department’s activities. Today Justice said the department included “some rogue players.”
The governor said all the findings by outside counsel were turned over to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Today, Justice said his concern had been about the multi-million dollar contract for Horne potentially taking money that could have been dedicated to flood victims.
“I’m not going to do that,” he said. “When I saw that, that’s when we shut it down.”
By May 23, 2018, legislators opened an investigation about why flood relief had halted.
Lawmakers said their constituents had been calling for weeks, asking why progress was halted. About that time, a couple of months after the pause had gone into effect, was the first time the pause started to be publicly discussed by government officials.
“A gag order was placed by the Justice administration,” Thrasher said. “Nobody is allowed to say anything until (senior adviser) Bray Cary approves it.”
What went on behind the scenes was frustrating for all, including his staff, Thrasher said.
“People would call and say ‘Hey, there was a construction crew here last month, looks to me like they’ve pulled off. What’s going on?’ And our staff has to say, ‘Well, I’m sorry but we can’t comment on that right now.'”
Controversy caught fire in the days and weeks after the halted.
“If we’d started those homes in February like we’d planned, there wouldn’t have been a peep,” Thrasher said. “I think everyone would have been thrilled with the progress that was made. It was only after that pause happened.”
On June 4, 2018, Justice announced he was shifting authority for long-term flood relief to the West Virginia National Guard.
Ten days later, Thrasher resigned at the governor’s request.
A legislative audit released June 24, 2018, concluded that the contracts with flood relief consultants and construction companies had been unlawfully executed.
“Maybe technically they were illegal. But none of the money had been spent. It was done because, as I said in the beginning, it was emergency status. We were trying to get those folks back in their home,” he said.
West Virginia’s long-term flood relief continues at a frustratingly sluggish pace.
A RISE status report at the end of last week showed the number of outstanding housing program cases remained at 465.
Completed homes numbered 49.
After a few months off of a “slow spender” list kept by HUD, West Virginia has been back on.
Of the total $149,875,000 that West Virginia has available, the state still has $135,261,157.
The prior month, West Virginia had $135,955,542 on hand.
Thrasher, now on the outside looking in, suspects the frustrating pace has to do with ongoing debates over priorities — housing versus infrastructure needs — as well as a learning curve for handling enormous amounts of money and very pressing needs.
“The whole thing had to start over again,” he said.