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Editorial

Gregory’s Web – May 7, 2023

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Ron Gregory political columnist

Talk about hypocrisy. Today it comes courtesy of state employees and ethics officials who see no legal violations when public employees used state resources to “invite” other public employees to the Jim Justice for U.S. Senate announcement last week.

Amazingly, those charged with enforcing ethics rules figured out how to explain away the distribution of the Justice announcement, which was purely political in nature.

But I recall when a county prosecutor who was not part of the ruling clique was ridiculed and drummed from office for virtually the same thing.

Republican Bill Charnock was elected Kanawha prosecutor in 2004 at the age of 35. Full disclosure (ethics?) leads me to advise that I was his campaign manager.

“He resigned three years later rather than face possible indictment by a grand jury on charges that he misused state resources during his and his family’s campaign for public office when he was director of the state-funded Prosecuting Attorneys Institute,” The Charleston Gazette reported.

Last Wednesday, an employee of the West Virginia Department of Transportation and Division of Highways used her state government email account to send the invitation for Justice’s Thursday U.S. Senate announcement at the Justice-owned Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs to 41 wv.gov email addresses. That’s West Virginia government employees. The mailing included most of the leaders of the Department of Transportation/Division of Highways, according to the Martinsburg Journal

“Just so you know, you are cordially invited to attend the event according to the invitation herewith,” wrote Charlene Chandler, a highway division manager for DOT. “Please note that attendance will be on your own accord and travel expenses will not be reimbursable.”

One receiving an invitation was Jimmy Wriston, DOT secretary and DOH commissioner. In an email statement Monday afternoon, Wriston said he had first received the invitation to the Justice event – which did not include the subject of the event but was marked “Paid for by Jim Justice” – on April 21 and directed DOT’s Central Correspondence Office to send the invitation to all DOT employees last Tuesday.

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“After further review and consultation on this matter, and in hindsight, I probably would not have shared the invitation in the manner that I did, I apologize for any appearance of impropriety.” Jimmy Wriston

Appearance of impropriety, huh?

The Journal noted that the West Virginia Ethics Act includes a prohibition against public officials or public employees “knowingly and intentionally” using their office or the perceived prestige of their office for their own private gain or the private gain of another person. However, there is an exception. Ah, West Virginia government and its “exceptions.” Always an exception.

Why not reimburse the travel, for heaven’s sake?

The Ethics Act makes an exception for “de minimis,” or insignificant, private gain.

“Incidental use of equipment or resources available to a public official or public employee by virtue of his or her position for personal or business purposes resulting in de minimis private gain does not constitute use of public office for private gain under this subsection,” according to State Code 6B-2-5(b)(1).

In a prior ruling, the West Virginia Ethics Commission answered a question from an anonymous public official about whether it was acceptable to use “office space, stationery, phones and other items provided to him for use in the performance of his official responsibilities, including his public title, to solicit campaign contributions on behalf of candidates for public office.”

They wrote, “While a significant use of public resources to endorse a candidate would be a violation of the Ethics Act, the use of secretarial assistance, letterhead stationery and office equipment to produce an occasional letter of endorsement would not.“ Wow! It sure did for Bill Charnock, who was headed for Special Prosecutor Dwane Tinsley’s grand jury if he didn’t resign.

“Such limited use of resources is de minimis, and is not a material violation,” they concluded.

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And I guess being elected a U.S. Senator is trivial too.

Ethics Commission Executive Director Kimberly Weber told the paper it’s not clear whether event invitations would go beyond the “de minimis” standard.

“The Ethics Commission has not issued an opinion directly answering your question,” Weber told a Journal reporter. “The general rule is that state resources should not be used for political purposes, but the de minimis exception must also be analyzed and applied based upon the specific facts.”

It wasn’t applied to the Charnock case. Or even apparently considered by the “Get Charnock” cabal.

The West Virginia Division of Personnel issued updated guidance in April 2022 about what kinds of political activities are allowed or not allowed for classified employees within state agencies. According to the DOP, state employees may not “post or distribute campaign literature in a state office building or during work hours. This includes employee organization bulletin boards.”

Pretty tough rules I’d say. The barn door seems opened fairly wide.

Hypocrisy. It won’t be reined in by this absentee Governor.

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Plans are being made for the (Nick Joe) Rahall Congressional Archives House ribbon cutting. The event is set for  Wednesday, August 2, at 11 a.m. on the WVU Tech campus in Beckley.

Rahall, one of the last congressmen who was one of us and not one of them, certainly deserves the honor.

He served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1977 to 2015. Thus, he is the longest-serving member of the U.S. House from West Virginia.

He began his political service in the early 1970s, working in the cloak room of the U.S. Senate, as a staff member in the Senate Office of the Majority Whip from 1971-74, and as a delegate to the Democratic National Conventions in 1972 and 1976. 

He was elected as a Democrat to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1976 to represent the old 4th congressional district. He became the representative for the 3rd congressional district when redistricting was completed following the 1990 census. 

He was re-elected for 19 terms.

Readers know my opinion of Rahall as the consummate public servant. If it was good for West Virginia and his district, Rahall led the fight for it. He was non-partisan when it came to serving his fellow citizens.

His constituents miss him and the services he provided. And I miss him for his rare insight into complex legislative issues.

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State Senate President Craig Blair (Also the Lieutenant Governor by virtue of being Senate President), has announced that he’ll run for re-election to his Eastern Panhandle seat. There were rumors he might run for statewide office, including governor. Apparently, he decided the field is crowded enough with at least five viable Republicans in the running.

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Mason County Republican State Senator Amy Nicole Grady announced for re-election the day after she got just one percent in our governor poll.

She evidently thought 50 points to get to the top and leapfrogging five candidates was too much for even à firebrand like her to accomplish.

I guarantee you nobody will outwork the Mason County senator.

Thus far, she was the only elected woman who showed any interest in the top job.

Wildlife rescuer Terri Bradshaw is also a candidate for the GOP gubernatorial nomination as is the Easter Panhandle’s Rashida Yost.

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* * * * * *

Grady likely will have no primary opponent. That’s quite a contrast to four years ago when Grady challenged then-incumbent Senate President Mitch Carmichael and Delegate Jim Butler in the primary for the seat.

Most gave the Mason County school teacher little chance of winning then.

I picked her for victory in 2020 and she’ll be a big favorite next year.

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With his usual decisiveness, Republican Governor Jim Justice let it slip that he’d declare his U.S. Senate candidacy last Thursday at his Greenbrier Resort. For once, he did manage to follow through.

It was the invitation to that announcement that state employees were using state resources to distribute.

The announcement means that the Governor and his companion Baby Dog will be touring the state even more.

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He did tell a source he might change the date but he decided not to.

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A source with the Alex Mooney for U.S. Senate campaign told MetroNews that  Mooney has received the backing so far of 25% of the Republican majority in the state House of Delegates and the same percentage among Republican state senators (I know. I don’t know how many of 31 senators equal 25 percent either).

Former state GOP Executive Director John Findlay, now with the Mooney campaign, must have done the percentage calculation.

Hoppy Kercheval says that Justice didn’t appear too impressed with the endorsements when he was asked by MetroNews about them.

There’s no reason. Each legislator has just one vote and 25 percent won’t win it. But this is definitely a race that will be worth watching.

* * * * * *

There is a strong likelihood that one of the good guys -a genuine public servant will be returned to office next election.

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Former Democrat Delegate Chad Lovejoy has already pre-filed to be a Cabell County Circuit Judge.

Senator Mike Woelfel calls current Judge Albert Ferguson his mentor. He says Ferguson is “definitely not running for re-election,” meaning there will be at least one open seat next year.

Lovejoy would clearly be a favorite to capture the post. He would be a great, fair, impartial jurist.

I spoke briefly with Lovejoy about his judge candidacy. Being the class act that he is, he said he spoke with all four current judges before pre-filing.

“I told them I wouldn’t run against a sitting judge,” he said. “But Judge Ferguson told me he was retiring so I filed.”

Woelfel said he attended Ferguson’s swearing-in more than 40 years ago.

“And I can prove it,” the senator said. “A picture of the ceremony shows me in the front row.”

A colleague joked that Woelfel “might have Photoshopped himself into the picture.”

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Judge Ferguson is 85 years old and will be retiring.

* * * * * *

Former Republican State Senator Kenny W. Mann is said to be giving a serious look at running for secretary of state in 2024. 

Current Republican SOS Mac Warner is giving up the job to run for governor.

Mann is reported to be “putting the word out” that he’s interested. 

A member of the West Virginia Senate from the 10th district from 2017 to 2020,  Mann is a former member of the Monroe County Board of Education.

Running for the Senate seat in 2016, he handily defeated Democrat Delegate David Perry in 2016. Perry was attempting to move from the House to the Senate.

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Speaking of the State Senate, it’s possible Cabell/Wayne County Democrat Woelfel may end up being the Minority Leader of just himself in January 2025.

That would harken back to a day, years ago, when Pleasants County Republican Senator Donna Boley was Minority Leader of just herself.

My how things change.

Right now there are 31 Republicans and three Democrats. Woelfel was re-elected in 2022, meaning his seat is secure through 2026.

But his two Dem colleagues are up in 2024. And rumors are that neither Wayne/Cabell Senator Bob Plymale nor Marion Senator Mike Caputo will run again.

Both are said to be dissatisfied that Democrats lack power at the statehouse.

Caputo is also reportedly wanting more time to spend with his family.

With those two seats up, Republicans will need only to hold the seats where they are incumbents and claim the two open seats to make Woelfel the leader solely of himself.

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One legislative trivia question asks which senator was the minority leader by virtue of being the only member of the minority party. Of the 34, in 1991 and 92, Boley was the lone Republican in the upper chamber.

Because of her unique position, Boley was a member of every Senate committee. Talk about being overworked.

Meanwhile, Democrat  Delegate Joey Garcia is reportedly interested in the Caputo seat.

An attorney, Garcia would be a formidable candidate in one of the few districts that still trends liberal Democrat.

Caputo, a union organizer, won his position three years ago despite a well-organized campaign against him.

There’s plenty of interest in Plymale’s position. Wayne County Democrat Delegate Ric Griffith, one of the few surviving legislative Dems, is rumored to be planning a run for the job. He barely escaped the GOP sweep to win his House seat in 2022.

Meanwhile, Republicans unofficially eyeing the seat include former Huntington police officer, now detective, Scott Fuller and Marshall orthopedic surgeon Dr. Dana Lycans. Solid conservative Jason Stephens has already pre-filed.

Fuller ran unsuccessfully for the House of Representatives in 2022.

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He announced his candidacy for Plymale’s senate seat some time ago on social media but has not pre-filed. Some suspect he’s hesitating for family reasons. We received copies of a road rage complaint involving Fuller’s son filed with the Huntington Police Department. It appears the victim in this complaint had to involve the Huntington Police Chief twice before breaking thru the thin blue line left by Fuller. Scott Fuller a retired police officer and now experienced campaigner – is no doubt trying to keep his son from becoming the “Hunter Biden of Wayne County”

* * * * * *

Will there be any Democrats left?

Department of Revenue Secretary David Hardy told the Republican Women he is now registered GOP.

At one time a highly-partisan Democrat Charleston City Councilman and Kanawha County Commissioner, Hardy has been Revenue Secretary since 2017.

Earlier, he served as the Kanawha County Democrat executive committee treasurer.

* * * * * *

The word is that Republican Delegate Paul Espinosa of Jefferson County plans to challenge Senator Patricia Rucker in the 2024 GOP Primary.

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Some speculate that President Blair has recruited Espinosa for the race. It’s no secret that Blair was unhappy with Rucker as education chair. In fact, he replaced her with Grady.

Finally, rumor has it that Republican Delegate Erikka Storch of Ohio County will soon be stepping down to take a new private-sector job.

Storch has served as the Wheeling area’s representative since 2011.

Contact Ron Gregory at 304-533-5185; Ron.Gregory@wvstatewide.com or PO Box 20297, Charleston, WV 25362. Anonymity is guaranteed if requested.

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  • Ron Gregory

    From Mayor of Glenville at age 26 to Assistant Mayor of Charleston, management of various public entities, and countless political races in West Virginia – Ron Gregory is the most noted political correspondent in the state.

From Mayor of Glenville at age 26 to Assistant Mayor of Charleston, management of various public entities, and countless political races in West Virginia - Ron Gregory is the most noted political correspondent in the state.