Before we say goodbye to 2019, I want to share with you my list of the top six stories of the year:
6) Bransfield Scandal. Investigative reporters at the Washington Post broke open the story about the alleged sexual harassment and financial improprieties of former Diocese of Wheeling Charleston Bishop Michael Bransfield.
The Post obtained a copy of a secret investigation by the church that revealed in painstaking detail how Bransfield used millions of dollars of Diocesan funds to finance a luxurious lifestyle. The report also cited multiple examples of how Bransfield sexually harassed young priests and seminarians.
New Bishop Mark Brennan has proposed a plan of amends for Bransfield that includes restitution and apologies. Meanwhile, some parishioners continue to press for greater transparency and more accountability.
5) Impeachment. Yes, impeachment is a national story, but it also reverberated throughout the year in West Virginia. Members of the state’s congressional delegation could hardly do an interview without being asked their opinions on President Trump, the Mueller Report and impeachment proceedings.
The four Republicans in the delegation—Senator Shelley Moore Capito and Representatives David McKinley, Alex Mooney and Carol Miller consistently voiced support for the President, arguing that the investigations were politically motivated. Senator Joe Manchin is believed to be one Senate Democrat who might not back Trump’s removal from office.
4) #FTDR. So, when are roads not a big issue in West Virginia? But after falling behind on maintenance for years, the state’s roads seemed to be in worse shape than ever. Governor Jim Justice, frustrated with the direction of the Division of Highways, fired Transportation Secretary Tom Smith.
Justice hired a new team and, with road bond money and an additional allocation from the Legislature, directed highways to get to work ditching and fixing the roads. The state has made notable progress, but with nearly 39,000 miles of roads in the state’s care, we head into 2020 with a lot of work that still must be done.
3) Drug Crisis. Sadly, the opioid epidemic is one of the top stories in West Virginia every year, and 2019 was no different. The state and communities continue to try innovative ways to get addicts into treatment as well as keep people from starting to use drugs.
West Virginia is now experiencing secondary and tertiary effects from the crisis. More grandparents and relatives are raising children whose parents are addicts, the state’s foster care system is bursting at the seams and school absenteeism is up.
Efforts continued in 2019 to hold opioid manufacturers and wholesalers responsible for the epidemic and force them to pay millions of dollars to help fight addiction.
2) Education. The biggest story of the 2019 legislative session was the long debate and eventual passage of the omnibus education reform bill. Teacher unions fought to keep charter schools out of the bill, even staging a strike that closed schools statewide.
Lawmakers eventually passed a bill that allows for the creation of three charter schools starting July 1, 2020, and then three more every three years. But more importantly, the bill included millions of additional dollars to try to improve public education.
State and national test scores released in 2019 show West Virginia school students continue to lag in math, science and reading.
1) VA Hospital Deaths. There was no more shocking and disturbing story in West Virginia in 2019 than the suspicious deaths at the Louis A. Johnson Veteran’s Hospital in Clarksburg. Between nine and 11 VA patients, and perhaps more, died at the hospital between 2017 and 2018 under unusual circumstances, but the public did not learn about the deaths until last August.
Investigators are piecing together a pattern; aging veterans at the hospital suddenly go into diabetic shock and die. Autopsies show many of the victims were given large unprescribed injections of insulin.
Authorities have said they have a person of interest, a nursing assistant who worked on the hospital wing where the deaths occurred, but no charges have been filed. Heading into 2020, family members of the victims continue to wait for the conclusion of an ongoing investigation.