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Former RISE director tells lawmakers ‘we were building a plane and flying it at the same time’

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The former director of the RISE West Virginia long-term recovery program told state lawmakers Thursday the delays in the program designed to get permanent housing for hundreds of victims of the 2016 flood suffered from environmental and bureaucracy problems.

Mary Jo Thompson, who resigned her state government job last month, delivered more than two hours of sworn testimony before the legislature’s flood committee.

Thompson said she loses sleep over the problems and wishes she could have done more.

“I will never stop thinking I could have fought harder, sent a stronger message, talk to maybe the congressional delegation even more, ‘please talk to HUD, please do what we can do,'” Thompson said.

She said the federal Office of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) had many requirements connect to the money and at first the state struggled in dealing with them.

“If I would have had more experience in environmental reviews—I think in general I would have been more effective. I was sort of, we were, building a plane and flying it at the same time because this is the first time this program had ever happened in the state of West Virginia,” Thompson said.

Del. Kayla Kessinger, R-Fayette, says RISE under Thompson appears to have operated with a lack of urgency.

Testimony Thursday confirmed that more than two years after the flood only seven cases for permanent housing have been completed through RISE. The funds were released this past February. HUD has classified the state in the “slow spender” category for the funds. The Justice administration announced a new agreement with the agency earlier this week in hopes of clearing up some of the issues with consulting contracts originally agreed to by the Department of Commerce. The Justice administration put the program on hold in February because of the questions.

Delegate Kayla Kessinger, R-Fayette, asked Thompson how long she had personally spent in the field speaking with flood victims.

“Probably 10 percent and maybe less,” Thompson said.

Kessinger called that disappointing.

“I’m losing my patience because earlier you said you had to balance between pushing too hard and not pushing enough, but I truly don’t think you can push hard enough for people who don’t have homes,” Kessinger said, fighting back tears.

Gov. Jim Justice appointed state Adjutant General Jim Hoyer to head up RISE last month. Hoyer’s economic development director Jeff Wood is helping Hoyer with the administration of the program that is still officially under the Department of Commerce.

Wood told the committee that the state isn’t alone on HUD’s slow spender list. He said of the more than 100 cases across the U.S. that are receiving funds through a similar program 61 are on the slow spender list.

“This is a little bit of a nationwide thing to look at for HUD,” Wood said. “We do have our own issues and we are working through those. We will get off of the slow spender list in due time.”

Justice administration chief counsel Brian Abraham says putting RISE on hold was the right thing to do.

During his testimony, Justice administration General Counsel Brian Abraham detailed for the committee how the governor’s office discovered the problems with Rise and why it put a hold on the contract with Horne which was managing the flood recovery money. Abraham also detailed for committee members how he confronted the former director of the West Virginia Office of Economic Opportunity Russell Tarry and state Development Office Program Specialist Andrew Mihallik about a memo sent to HUD claiming the hold had stopped a program where a lot of homes were being built.

“I told them I was going to load a van up with news reporters and take them to the houses that are being built but all of us sitting around this table know there aren’t any houses being built. They both put their heads down,” Abraham said. “They kept saying, ‘we didn’t intend to deceive anybody this was just the information that was provided to us.'”

Thompson testified for about two-and-a-half hours Thursday. She said she wasn’t forced out of her job but decided it would be better to leave and let Hoyer run the program the way he thought was best.

“On behalf of the program and on behalf of the state and on behalf of myself it was time to create a clean slate for the new leadership and the new direction that the governor’s office was going in and it was simply time for me to go,” Thompson said.

The committee’s meeting began with officials from the state Auditor’s Office breaking down how some of the RISE money has been spent. Some of it has gone to yard signs promoting RISE. There’s also been a contract with Stonewall Retail Marketing and the money paid for a multi-day conference at Stonewall Resort to discuss community development.


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