CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia’s highly-touted, $84 billion investment agreement with China has no results, but a law firm working on environmental issues still wants to see what’s on the memorandum of understanding.
Appalachian Mountain Advocates filed a brief with the state Supreme Court this week, objecting to a lower court’s rejection of a Freedom of Information Act request aimed at finding out more about the deal.
The nonprofit had aimed at the West Virginia University Energy Institute, which was heavily involved with the deal that was first announced Nov. 9, 2017.
The initial announcement was accompanied by great fanfare as a deal beyond West Virginia’s gross domestic product of $73.4 billion.
Then-Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher signed a memorandum of understanding with China Energy President Ling Wen as President Trump looked on.
“Absolutely. Absolutely. They’ll be investing dollars here,” Gov. Jim Justice said during a November, 2017, appearance on ‘Fox and Friends.’
Some national energy analysts cautioned that agreements such as a memorandum of understanding would represent a less firm commitment than a contract and the actual amount being invested could wind up being less than originally described.
So far, it’s been nothing.
CNBC focused on a deal a week ago, coming out with a story headlined “West Virginia still waiting on $84 billion investment from China.”
Thrasher, now running for governor, told CNBC the possible investment was added up with the “back of a napkin” figure worked out “in a couple of hours” to be ready for a high-profile announcement at the international level.
“The temptation was too great not to sort of announce that deal,” Thrasher said.
A West Virginia delegation that included the current Commerce Secretary, Ed Gaunch, returned to China earlier this month and described optimism.
“They have identified seven projects for West Virginia,” Gaunch said on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”
Appalachian Mountain Advocates still wants to know more.
The law firm first sued last summer for documents related to the deal. The case was in Monongalia Circuit Court.
Appalachian Mountain Advocates sought any agreements West Virginia officials entered into with the China Energy Investment Corporation in 2017, any list of energy projects that West Virginia provided to China Energy and correspondence that Energy Institute staff sent or received that year that included the words “China” and either “energy,” “coal” or “gas.”
WVU was sued because Quingyun Sun of its energy institute is also the governor’s assistant for China affairs at the Development Office. His two roles — and how much they overlap — are at the heart of questions posed by the lawsuit.
WVU contended the documents are actually the confidential possessions of the West Virginia Development Office and moved to have the case dismissed.
Appalachian Mountain Advocates lost that round and filed an appeal this week with the state Supreme Court.
“In delegating authority to public servants, West Virginians ‘do not give away the right to decide what is good for them to know and what is not,'” the 31-page opening brief begins, quoting state code.
The nonprofit contends the lower court erred and that WVU’s case was flimsy. For example, Appalachian Mountain Advocates contends WVU called its search for documents burdensome but provided insufficient detail to judge that claim.
“Not only were those allegations formally insufficient, they failed to reflect the reasonable specificity required to sustain an undue burden claim,” lawyers for the nonprofit wrote.
Lawyers for WVU will have the opportunity to respond to the Supreme Court filing by Appalachian Mountain Advocates.
Meanwhile, the nonprofit wants the memorandum of understanding and believes someone at WVU has it.
“Presumably, the University possesses a copy of that agreement,” the lawyers wrote. “If it did not — for example, if Dr. Sun has always and only possessed a copy solely in his capacity as a Development Office official — the University could have stated as much.
“Instead, it denied Appalachian’s request due to the fact that it was ‘not a signatory’ to that agreement, and then moved to dismiss Appalachian’s complaint on grounds that a statutory exemption applied to records it was otherwise responsible for disclosing.
The nonprofit continued, “Nonetheless, the University has not unequivocally stated that it possesses the agreement it described in its initial response. Nor has the University explained whether it possesses other documents responsive to Appalachian’s request for agreements and project lists.”