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Editorial

Gregory’s Web – June 25, 2023

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Ron Gregory political columnist

I’m not one to say I told you so. But I told you so. 

How many times have we mentioned here and on the Tom Roten Morning Show that there are serious questions to be asked about the various “contests” and statewide giveaways during which Jim Justice and his pet BabyDog have awarded lavishing “prizes” on “lucky” West Virginians? 

While few in the media have actually questioned the Governor about the contests, he was theoretically in charge of the fun and games. If improper purchases were made, it follows that he bears some responsibility.

I should pause here to emphasize that Justice is in charge theoretically although we all know he’s seldom on the job enough to actually be running anything.

The contests were supposedly designed to entice more people to have COVID shots during the pandemic. It was purportedly a life-saving program.

One might also wonder if vehicles that were given for prizes were purchased under existing state government contracts, which would have followed standard, fair purchasing guidelines. If they weren’t, why were they not?

Rumors have persisted from the start of the contests that car dealer friends of Justice got what we will charitably call “special treatment” on purchases from the Governor’s pomp and bluster programs.

In a story last week, CBS reporters maintained that subpoenas were issued involving the state’s use of $1.25 billion in Coronavirus Aid Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds for its COVID-19 vaccine incentive lottery.

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“CBS News has learned federal investigators subpoenaed Governor Jim Justice’s office about the sweepstakes,” according to CBS reporters Scott McFarlane, Erica Brown, and Analisa Novak. 

Naturally, “aw-shucks” Mr. Haney impersonator Justice and his chief of staff, “Oliver Wendell” Brian Abraham played down the story. 

While Abraham, the former Logan County Prosecutor, spun the story away from any question about the actions of Justice and staff, the network reported they were told a different story by those same staffers.

Several times in the CBS report, “governor’s staff” was quoted. They said there were “questions about how much (vehicles) … cost taxpayers.” While Abraham seems poised to argue that any price gouging is the fault of the dealers, someone on the government side would have had to agree to exorbitant prices, if there were such. That someone might have legal problems once the dust has settled.

CBS went on to quote Grace Fowler, a Nicholas County healthcare worker who won a Chevrolet 1500 truck on July 14, 2021. She entered the first phase of the contest named “Do It For Babydog: Save a Life, Change Your Life” for the Governor’s much-traveled bulldog.

According to the story, the dealership claimed the vehicle had custom features that increased the truck’s value by $20,000, forcing Fowler to sell it because of the huge tax ticket. The governor’s staff told CBS they had heard other stories like Fowler’s.

According to a report on CARES Act spending released by the State Auditor’s Office earlier, more than $2.2 million was spent on vehicles of the over $23 million total that went for COVID prizes.

The vehicles were purchased from Astorg Auto, Moses Chevrolet, Weimer Chevrolet-Buick-GM, Yes Chevrolet, Thornhill GM Superstore, Stephen’s Auto Center, Sheets Automotive Group, Northside Chevrolet Buick, Moses Ford, Ramey Motors and Kent Parsons Ford.

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The Wheeling Intelligencer quoted Abraham as saying, “We purchased those cars through the (West Virginia Automobile Dealers Association), who would pick the dealers. We had no direct dealings or negotiations with them. We paid the price as listed on the windshield of the car on the car lots, no more and no less.”

Again, that begs the question: why not buy the vehicles on state contract at the best-negotiated price following rigid purchasing guidelines?

And then the next obvious question: who but Justice and BabyDog would pay “the price listed on the windshield”? 

Oh yeah … and gullible West Virginia taxpayers perhaps?

Nothing more? Okay. But nothing less? Come on ….even grandma negotiates the best price when she buys her grandson his first vehicle.

In addition, studies have shown that the sweepstakes here and elsewhere did nothing to inspire increased vaccinations. For all the good the contests did COVID, Justice might as well have thrown all those millions in the Elk River

Regardless, our jovial Governor always finds rays of sunshine in the dark clouds many of us see.

“Everyone was pushing everybody to more and more and more vaccines in people’s arms,” Justice said during his weekly online news conference.

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So why give away exorbitant prizes to coax more shot-taking? We may never know.

Still, the Governor explained the investigation away with a few words.

“We received a subpoena to supply information,” he declared. “We supplied it all.”

I predict here and now: we haven’t heard the last of these sweepstakes questions and neither has Justice.

* * * * * *

Former Republican West Virginia State Senator Chris Walters announced this past week that he will seek a seat on the Kanawha County Commission in the 2024 election. 

Last Thursday, Walters told the media he filed for the seat now held by longtime Commission Democrat President Kent Carper. Carper, a Charleston lawyer, has been on the commission for 26 years. 

The incumbent, 71, has been battling several illnesses recently. He received a kidney transplant from his daughter a few years ago. Most recently his family reported he suffered a stroke and then required quadruple-bypass heart surgery.

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He was hospitalized for three weeks in May because of health problems, his family has said.

Still, Carper will be a formidable candidate particularly since Kanawha has not drifted nearly as Republican as the rest of the state.

“As Kanawha County Commissioner, I will focus on helping the small businesses in our county grow and will work to bring better internet connectivity to our community,” Walters said in a statement. As a state senator, increased broadband availability was one of his goals. 

“I know that Kanawha County is a prime spot for manufacturing jobs. I will work with our state’s Economic Development office to highlight our workforce and resources.” Walters added.

In addition to Carper, Democrat Ben Salango and Republican Lance Wheeler also sit on the commission bench.

Walters, son of former Kanawha House of Delegates member Ron Walters, was elected the State Senate from the state’s biggest county. He lost four years later in a bid for re-election. He then lost a 2020 race for House of Delegates. While in the legislature, 

“Together we can make Kanawha County an even better place to live and work,” Walters said.

He is married to the former Elizabeth Spencer, daughter of ex-Kanawha House Democrat member Sharon Spencer and her late husband, Gary.

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It would represent a significant turnover if Kanawha’s commission switched from Democrat to Republican.

* * * * * *

Republican Secretary of State Mac Warner, a 2024 gubernatorial candidate, continues working to clean up state voter registration rolls.

It’s getting more and more difficult to win elections here with dead and moved-away voters since Warner took office.

The Charleston native had announced that postcards will soon be mailed to 15,860 West Virginia voters who may have moved without updating or canceling their voter registration. Warner said, “These potential movers did not notify the U.S. Postal Service of any changes of address but appear to have moved based on other available data.”

State law requires voter registration to be accurately up to date.

Thus, the postcards remind voters of what they need to do to be properly registered.

Those with voter questions can call their local county clerk or the elections division in the SOS office.

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* * * * * *

Though it was reported well attended, there’s no word yet on the donations Governor Justice’s Senate campaign received at a “high powered” fundraiser last week in Washington,

Senate GOP Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senators Shelley Moore Capito, Steve Daines, Marsha Blackburn, Joni Ernst, Pete Ricketts, John Thune, and Thom Tillis were listed as sponsors.

“Leaders in Washington see Governor Justice’s accomplishments and results in West Virginia and the overwhelming support West Virginians have for him,” said Justice campaign manager Roman Stauffer.

You’ll remember Stauffer as the interim state GOP chair when Melody Potter resigned. Like Potter, he ruled the party structure with an iron hand.

After initially seeking a full-length chair term, Stauffer withdrew and the discredited Dr. Mark Harris was elected.

Justice is hoping to fare better than Stauffer.

“Yes, conservatives in Washington and across the country support him and are rallying around him because they know he gets things done, will work hard to find solutions for the people of West Virginia, and is the strongest candidate to win the U.S. Senate race,” according to Stauffer.

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The fundraiser took place at the offices of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in Washington.

Justice was recruited by Senate Republican leaders to run in 2024 for the seat currently held by Democrat Joe Manchin. His alleged popularity hovers around 65% while Democrat Manchin sits at near 40%.

* * * * * *

Late-breaking word from the campaign trail portrays Republican Attorney General Patrick Morrisey supporters trying to disrupt a Mac Warner for Governor event in Raleigh County.

We’ll have many more details right here later.  

Suffice it, for now, to say that two events were planned the past Thursday at Flat Top Arms on Beckley’s South Eisenhower Drive.

One happening was to be recognition of a Second Amendment group that was set to endorse Warner for the GOP Governor position in 2024. The other involved a national non-profit. 

Morrisey is also a Republican for Governor in ’24.

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When word reached Charleston prior to Thursday that Warner was to be honored, Morrisey allegedly called the store owner demanding to speak as well.

The shop owner explained that he and other veterans support Warner because of his military service. That supposedly didn’t sit well with the Attorney General.

Subsequently, at least two Morrisey supporters showed up at the event and “were very loud.”

I’ve spoken with one of the event organizers and we’ll have lots more details of what happened coming in the days just ahead.

* * * * * * 

The GOP Governor race is not the only place to be alert for fireworks.

There’s no love lost between the top contenders (Governor Justice and Congressman Mooney) for the U.S. Senate nomination either.

While Governor Justice was planning his big fundraiser, the campaign manager for his opponent, Congressman Mooney, was taking shots at the Governor.

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Mooney’s campaign has gone after Justice already over a variety of financial challenges to his family’s network of businesses.

“Jim Justice is already one of the all-time worst recruits by the GOP Establishment,” said Mooney Manager John Findlay.

Not known as being the diplomatic king of politics, Findlay went on, “Ever since the national spotlight touched Justice, there has been one embarrassing scandal after another. Jim Justice is corrupt, compromised, and not ready for prime time.”

That is the type of rhetoric in the GOP primary that could really separate Mooney and Justice supporters. And if they’re split enough, it could lead to Manchin having a relatively easy re-election bid.

Findlay’s reputation is similar to Mooney’s for gutter politics. That could be bad news for supermajority West Virginia voters.

Contact Ron Gregory at 304-533-5185; or ron.gregory@wvstatewide.com. Anonymity guaranteed.

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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. View all posts

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.