At the Capitol: State Corrections in crisis

By PHIL KABLER

For the West Virginia 

Press Association

CHARLESTON - While legislators returned to the Capitol for the first time since an extended special session on the budget ended on June 26, their August legislative interim committee meetings were overshadowed by events in the governor’s office.

During interims, Gov. Jim Justice hosted his first media availability after firing his chief of staff, Nick Casey, and after a two-day stay in Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for a viral infection.

Justice said he had change of heart and decided to fire Casey, a former state Democratic chairman, on Aug. 14 after it became clear that Justice’s change of party registration from Democrat to Republican on Aug. 4 was going to be an insurmountable issue.

“Nick said, “I’m married to a beautiful Italian girl that is a Democrat through and through,” Justice said, adding, “I knew then it wasn’t going to work.”

Justice said he decided to fire Casey, less than two weeks after asking him to stay on, “Not because of me, but because it was going to be tough on Nick.”

Casey, in turn, blasted Justice’s account of his firing, saying Justice had conflated a conversation his wife, Mary, had with the governor about growing up in an Italian Catholic family in Logan County into an insurmountable political obstacle.

“I think he must have been medicated to say that,” Casey said. “He pulled that out of his nose to say that.”

Casey said he is convinced Justice “let Republicans get in his head” about removing key staffers who are Democrats, and said he was irate that Justice used his wife’s political ties as a cover for his firing.

“It’s astounding to me he would use that conversation to make it that somehow he was doing her and me a favor,” Casey added. “It really, really agitates me that he would do that with any member of my family, especially my wife of 42 years.”

Justice subsequently named former Senate Finance Chairman Mike Hall, R-Putnam, a moderate Republican, as Casey’s successor.

Hall’s first order of business is a tall one: To organize a campaign promoting passage of the “2017 Roads to Prosperity” amendment to the state Constitution with just six weeks until the Oct. 7 referendum election.

The campaign has been in hiatus with Casey’s firing, and with the resignation of press secretary Grant Herring, who was in charge of promoting the $1.6 billion bond issue campaign, after Justice changed parties.

Justice also downplayed any health issues following his hospital stay, saying he had never previously taken a sick day in his life, and said he went to the prestigious teaching hospital for care because he has friends on staff.

“I’ve got friends at Johns Hopkins that have been my buddies for a long time. If I had an ingrown toenail, I’d take off to Johns Hopkins to see them,” Justice said.

Meanwhile, during legislative interim meetings:

— Military Affairs and Public Safety Secretary Jeff Sandy said the state Corrections system remains in a state of crisis with nearly 600 job vacancies because of low pay.

“It's been in a crisis for years," Sandy said. “When you've seen a video, and I look at every video of the incidents, when you see a video of one correction officer going into a pod with multiple individuals, you're going to have things happen.”

Even with a recently approved $1 an hour pay increase, state correctional officers remain the lowest paid in the U.S., and Sandy said state prisons and regional jails are losing employees to institutions in neighboring states, to the oil and gas industry, and even to retailers such as Walmart.

— Federal sanctions against state colleges and universities over the state’s ongoing failure to meet deadlines to submit financial audits could make it harder for state community colleges to quickly launch new workforce training programs, Sarah Tucker, chancellor for the state Community and Technical College System, told legislators.

Under the sanctions, colleges will need the U.S. Department of Education’s approval to offer new programs, with no timeline for how long the approval process will take, she said.

“For my personal opinion, I think it’s a pretty significant overreach,” she said.

— Legislators on Aug. 22 debated proposed legislation to make wage disclosure requirements in the West Virginia Jobs Act confidential.

Bryan Hoylman, president of Associated Builders and Contractors, argued that disclosing wages of employees working on publicly funded projects was necessary when state law required contractors to pay state prevailing wages, but is unneeded since the prevailing wage law was repealed last year.

Hoylman argued that the wages are propriety information, and said competitors could use the Freedom of Information Act to obtain wage information on publicly funded construction projects in hopes of underbidding contractors on future projects.

However, Don Smith, executive director of the West Virginia Press Association, said the Jobs Act disclosures are invaluable in uncovering fraud and waste in taxpayer-funded projects – disclosures that are critically important as the state is poised to pursue up to $3 billion of road construction projects.

“This bill is seeking to hide how a large portion of that money is spent,” said Smith, who represents state newspapers. “By restricting this, it makes it impossible for us to do our job.”