CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Following the removal of the Wood County Republican Executive Committee chairman by the state party chairwoman, 11 members of the local committee signed a letter in support of the move and sent it to the Secretary of State.
There’s a twist, though.
Six of those who signed the petition were freshly named to the county executive committee on West Virginia Day by state Republican Chairwoman Melody Potter.
Invited to explain, Potter declined.
“No interviews or questions will be answered by me while this process is moving forward. It is important that I represent the WV Republican Party in a professional and wise manner, while at the same time treating Mr. Cornelius with dignity,” she said. “Thank you for your inquiry.”
This story has been spiraling since the middle of last month.
In a letter dated June 18, Potter told members of the Wood County Executive Committee that she intended to remove the elected chairman, Rob Cornelius.
Cornelius has been openly critical of Potter and the party’s relationship with Gov. Jim Justice, a Republican who was first elected as a Democrat.
Potter’s letter cited Cornelius’s insulting statements on social media and questions about the structure of the local committee, including two positions Cornelius hadn’t filled. For authority, Potter referred to two sections of the state party bylaws.
After a back-and-forth with the Secretary of State’s Office over her authority to submit a new county GOP roster, Potter had one submitted.
On June 20, Potter named Roger Conley, a businessman who recently hosted a political town hall for Governor Justice, the acting chairman of the county GOP committee. Conley, who had not previously been on the county committee, could not be reached for this story at his business, on his cell phone or by text.
Also named that day were five more new members of the county GOP committee: William Lemley, Eileen Sandifer, Robert Sandifer, Heather Heckert and Scot Heckert.
All of those names were signed on a letter letter that was sent to the Secretary of State’s Office in support of Potter’s removal of Cornelius.
“We the undersigned members of the Wood County Republican Executive Committee, united and resolute, do hereby support the decision of the WVGOP Chair Melody Potter and her actions against former WCREC chair Robert Cornelius on June 18, 2018. We look forward to the future working as a team to recruit Republican candidates to seats we do not currently hold and to retain the ones we have.”
A screenshot of the petition circulated on social media last weekend. The Secretary of State’s Office confirmed its receipt.
There are 11 names in all. Some of the scrawled signatures are difficult to read, but six correspond to the new appointees. Conley was the first to sign it on June 22.
The second to sign, also on June 22, was the current treasurer of the Wood County GOP Executive Committee, Glady Lemley. Reached by telephone, Lemley also declined to comment.
“I think the best thing is just to let this play out and let the system do its job,” she said. “I really don’t have any comments, pro or con.”
There are 19 members on the current Wood County GOP Executive Committee roster currently filed with the Secretary of State.
There are two vice chairmen of the Wood County Republican Executive Committee. At least one of them is puzzled.
“At least I would think you would consult the two vice chairmen to see where either of us would be willing to step up,” Doug Ankrom said. “But I was never contacted by Melody prior to her letter removing Mr. Cornelius as our chairman.”
Ankrom had seen the petition circulating on social media, but on Monday said he had received no official word of that or additional members of the committee.
“From some of the signatures I saw,” he said, “there are a few that I was not informed of were ever appointed to the committee prior to the attempted removal of Rob or subsequent.”
Ankrom goes as far back as high school with Cornelius and joined the Wood County Executive Committee four or five years ago.
This isn’t the first attempt to remove Cornelius from the committee. The county executive committee voted in 2015 to remove Cornelius, but in that instance the state party intervened on his behalf and he remained. A few weeks ago, Ankrom said, the county executive committee considered a vote to investigate him but failed to move forward.
Last week, Cornelius filed a formal appeal with the state party.
Ankrom said a legitimate process to remove Cornelius would be acceptable. But he said the current situation doesn’t fit that description.
“If two thirds of the committee were to vote properly on those bylaws to remove Rob then so be it,” he said. “To try and do stuff through a signature or through unofficial or potentially illegal means, yes I have problems with that.”
Wood County Commission President Blair Couch is also troubled. He said one of the executive committee members asked him, “If I don’t sign this petition, is she going to remove me?”
Couch wondered about the signatures in support of the Wood County chairman’s removal.
“I don’t know how she identified those people,” he said. “I don’t know how she selected, if she vetted those people. Did she call them up individually and ask if they wanted to be part of the party? What was there that happened?”
Voters in West Virginia typically select members of county executive committees during primary elections. Once the committees get together, members vote for a chair.
Barring extraordinary circumstances, Couch said, that should be the standard.
“She repudiates Rob’s language, and I get it. There’s people who do not like him and people that like him,” he said. “But when the voters went to the polls they elected him along with other members of the executive committee. The sanctity of the polls, you would think there would be a higher hurdle.”
Below is the most recent Wood County GOP roster on file with the Secretary of State.
Below is the prior Wood County GOP Executive Committee roster.