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Today in the Legislature

Wednesday, December 12, 2018 - 02:47 PM

Caleb Hanna sworn in to West Virginia House of Delegates

Caleb Hanna was sworn in Wednesday morning in the West Virginia House of Delegates Chamber.

Hanna, of Richwood, is a republican delegate representing the 44th district, which covers parts of Nicholas, Randolph, Upshur, and Webster counties.

Justice Evan Jenkins swore him in. Hanna’s parents, Judy and Chuck, assisted. He was surrounded by family, friends, and eighth grade students from Sissonville Middle School.

Hanna is a full-time student, majoring in economics at West Virginia State University.



Monday, December 10, 2018 - 06:02 PM

Office of Chief Medical Examiner Administrative Director Discusses Caseload, Staffing

The West Virginia Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has faced issues with an increasing caseload and staff shortages, the administrative director told legislators in Monday’s Joint Standing Committee on the Judiciary.

Matthew Izzo, administrative director of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, said the office is budgeted for six people, including the position of the chief medical examiner, Izzo said. There are currently two vacancies. Izzo said based on West Virginia’s caseload and national certification standards, the office should have 10 people.

Since the beginning of this year, the office has had 7,100 cases. Out of those, 2,150 are autopsies. The caseload has steadily increased through the years. Izzo said this year marks a 14 percent increase from the previous year and a 30 percent increase from the year before.

Izzo said certification standards recommend that one forensic pathologist should not complete more than 250 autopsies for year. But Izzo says the office “far exceeds that.” The chief medical examiner did 415 autopsies last year, Izzo said, and is on pace to complete more than that this year.

The forensic pathologist who had the lowest number still had more than the recommended amount, performing between 380-390 autopsies. And that was with taking five months of maternity leave, Izzo said. Izzo estimated all pathologists will perform more than double the accreditation standards by the end of the year.

One issue he sees is that West Virginia needs to position itself to recruit more forensic pathologist. This year, 27 have graduated from fellowships throughout the country, he said. Those 27 graduates attended fellowships from a few dozen programs in the country, Izzo said. He listed programs in New Mexico, Ohio, and Maryland. He said there are fellowship seats that go unfilled and there are people who complete the program who do not end up practicing forensic pathology. 

***

West Virginia State Police 1st Sgt. Scott Pettry and Parkersburg Chief of Police Joseph Martin, also addressed the committee Monday, discussing protocols for responding to missing persons reports.

Pettry delved into the state’s statistics. This year, the West Virginia State Police reported 68 missing persons. There are 211 reported missing for more than a year.

Pettry explained the State Police follow national procedures for entering missing persons on the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database. In that database, there are six categories: Disability, endangered, involuntary, juvenile, catastrophe, and other.

As of Oct. 31, there are 36 that fall into the disability category, 40 in endangered, 16 in involuntary, 193 juvenile cases, two missing under the catastrophe category and 94 other cases.

The oldest case in the system goes back to 1979—a case out of Gauley Bridge.

Pettry talked about the NamUs database, which is a repository system on missing persons and unclaimed deceased. The database is searchable by anyone but sensitive data is only available to the coroner’s office and law enforcement.

“This is an avenue that allows families to enter key information into the system that law enforcement has access to along with the general public,” Pettry said.

Pettry said he wants to introduce NamUs to law enforcement, dispatchers, and all cadet classes. He said he wants to teach them how to use the system along with the benefits of using it.



Monday, December 10, 2018 - 03:44 PM

Muchow Urges Caution, Prudence, in Analyzing Strong Revenue Figures

Deputy Revenue Secretary Mark Muchow urged lawmakers to use caution when analyzing West Virginia's increased revenue numbers, during a legislative interim meeting on Monday afternoon.

His presentation noted that a key part of revenue collections being above estimates is linked to the ongoing construction of several natural gas pipelines. Those projects are expected to be completed by the end of 2019, after which, he expects the personal income tax and sales tax revenue to drop off. Fortunately, the Roads to Prosperity program will bring about $500 million a year to the state for as many as six years.

West Virginia's revenue collections exceeded estimates by $18.8 million in November, putting the state at $141 million above estimates through the first five months of the fiscal year. Muchow said the state is on its way to a $200 million surplus by the end of June.

According to Muchow, the severance tax on coal is currently being helped by a strong export market. The price of natural gas has stayed steady this year but that could go down next year due to a surplus of natural gas in the market, a situation that’s expected to continue until the pipelines are in operation. Muchow reiterated that taxes from the extraction industries are up and down.

So far this year, severance tax collections are 34.2 percent above where they were at this time in 2017. Consumer sales tax collections at $121.2 million were $5.8 ahead of estimates and severance tax collections finished November at $42.4 million, $7.8 million ahead of estimates. Personal income tax collections for November were $135.6 million, $7.3 above estimates.

 



Monday, December 10, 2018 - 03:30 PM

PEIA Task Force Members Update Lawmakers on Work, Proposed Recommendations

Two members of the PEIA Task Force updated lawmakers on the task force’s work and proposed recommendations in Monday’s Select Committee on PEIA, Seniors, and Long Term Care. 

Last week, Gov. Jim Justice sent a list of recommendations to the Coverage and Plan Subcommittee, which reviewed and approved them earlier this week. These recommendations are:

  • Moving Plan A benefits back to 80/20 coinsurance in external bordering counties;
  • Moving Plan B benefits back to 70/30 coinsurance in external bordering counties;
  • Removing facility fee limits from out-of-state facilities;
  • Removing $25 copays for out-of-state services;
  • Adding an appeal process for people requiring non-preferred drugs allowing for reduced copays.
  • Reviewing wellness plans

The governor also proposed dedicating $100 million to the PEIA Stabilization Fund over the next two years.

Joe Letnaunchyn, chairman of the Cost and Revenue Subcommittee, and Rob Alsop, chair of the Coverage and Plan Subcommittee, went over these recommendations Monday morning.

Alsop said the PEIA Finance Board froze premiums so there would be no increase as a result of the 5 percent pay increase for state employees—some of whom could have moved up an income tier as a result of the raise.

The task force also looked into its 10 income tiers. Alsop said PEIA is an outlier because it has so many tiers. He said if tiers are collapsed, there is a risk that people within the lower tiers would pay more. He said any change to the tiers should be accompanied by a compensatory adjustment so people in the lower tiers would not have their take-home pay negatively affected.  

Alsop said the task force also has looked into wellness initiatives. People who reached out to the task force recommended wellness programs be incentives rather than penalties. He said the task force wants to look at PEIA’s programs and develop new wellness initiatives.

Alsop said people also have reached out, asking for an appeals process for prescription drugs. 

He said there are drugs that are not on PEIA’s preferred list, which are more expensive. There have been instances where a generic drug is not the best treatment and a person has to take a prescription that is not on the preferred list. People have asked for relief from the 90-day refill provision. Alsop said the maximum out-of-pocket for a prescription is $1,750 and fewer than 400 people hit that amount.

The full PEIA Task Force met Monday afternoon to look at the Plan and Coverage Recommendations. In that meeting, the task force adopted an amendment to make the copay 80/20 for out of state in-network providers. This would be for a period of a year. Members of the task force said this would cost an additional $6.2 million. This is different than the original recommendation in that it is not limited to contiguous counties. The Cost and Revenue Subcommittee is also scheduled to meet, followed by the full task force to adopt the final report.

 



Monday, December 10, 2018 - 10:21 AM

Audit Reveals Faiulures of WV Emergency Management Office

An audit of the state's Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management presented to the Post Audit Subcommittee on Sunday, revealed the agency did not apply for $12 million of available federal funding for staffing and training needs.

The agency also failed to draw down more than $8 million of other federal grant money available, much of which was owed to local county and city governments, according to the audit.

Nick Browning, a senior researcher with the Legislative Auditor's office told the committee that DHSEM has not established an effective internal control environment over the administration of federal grants.

Legislative Auditor Aaron Allred warned lawmakers that DHSEM has been under heightened scrutiny since early 2016 because of a failure to meet the federal government's grant requirements. Leaders charged with overseeing that agency told lawmakers in response that they were unaware that the Federal Emergency Management Agency started penalizing the state with a "manual reimbursement" policy.

DHSEM is required to submit a yearly financial audit to the Division of Finance, by a certain deadline. This is required of state agencies that receive a large sum of federal dollars. According to Browning, DHSEM was one of the last agencies to submit its financial information over the last several years. Twice in the past several years, the agency submitted its information more than 170 days late.

According to the audit, DHSEM’s former director noted the agency did have adequate staff to complete these tasks in a timely manner, and that he did not hire additional staff because of the State’s hiring freeze and the length of time it takes the Division of Personnel to process hiring actions. However, the audit also states that funding for hiring staff is available under the Public Assistance grants program.

That money, dollars which came 100 percent from the federal government and does not require a match from the state, can pay for salary, benefits and rent for office space. Of the $13.8 million that was available to DHSEM, the audit found that the state only applied for and spent about $1.1 million.

 



Sunday, December 09, 2018 - 05:41 PM

Chief Technology Officer Discusses Cyber Security

Josh Spence, chief technology officer with the West Virginia Office of Technology, is proposing legislation to be drafted to address cyber security in the state.

Spence and Stan Partlow, vice president and chief security officer at American Electric Power, addressed legislators in Sunday’s Select Committee on Infrastructure.

Spence asked legislators to consider supporting the Secure West Virginia Act. This act would establish risk management methodology and a framework for assessing agencies’ risk. It would collect data and determine where areas of risk exist within state government.

 “The cyber threat is real. The cyber threat is here and the time to act is now,” Spence said.



Friday, December 07, 2018 - 04:17 PM

John Hott sworn in to West Virginia House of Delegates

John Paul Hott was sworn in Friday afternoon in the West Virginia House of Delegates chamber. House Clerk Steve Harrison swore him in.

 

Hott was accompanied by his wife Karen and children, Brooke Elizabeth, John Paul III, Sarah Ann, and Raphael Heber.

Hott, of Petersburg, is a republican member representing the 54th district, which covers Grant County and parts of Mineral and Pendleton counties.

He owns an insurance agency and a disposal service company. He has a bachelor’s in education from Fairmont State University, and his master’s in administration and supervision from Frostburg State University.



Friday, December 07, 2018 - 01:52 PM

Scott Cadle Sworn in to House of Delegates

Scott Cadle was sworn in to the West Virginia House of Delegates Friday morning.

Justice Evan Jenkins swore Cadle in and Emily Adkins, an 11th grader from Lincoln County High School held the Bible. Adkins and her class were taking a tour of the Capitol and were in the House during the ceremony.

Cadle, of Letart, is a Republican member representing the 13th district, which covers parts of Jackson, Mason and Putnam counties. He previously served in the West Virginia House of Delegates from 2012-2016. He is in the trucking business.



Thursday, December 06, 2018 - 05:07 PM

Patrick Martin, Carl “Robbie” Martin, sworn in to House of Delegates

Patrick Martin and brother Carl “Robbie” Martin” were sworn in to the West Virginia House of Delegates Thursday afternoon. Judge Kurt Hall, circuit judge from the 26th district covering Upshur and Lewis counties, swore both of them in.

Patrick Martin, of Weston, is a republican member representing the 46th district, which covers Lewis County and part of Upshur County. He first was elected in 2016 to the House of Delegates. 

Carl “Robbie” Martin, of Buckhannon, is a republican member representing the 45th district, which covers part of Upshur County. He previously has served on the Upshur County Board of Education. He received his bachelor’s in business management from West Virginia Wesleyan.



Monday, December 03, 2018 - 11:31 AM

Two Sworn into West Virginia House of Delegates

Two delegates were sworn in Monday morning in the West Virginia House of Delegates Chamber.

Randy Swartzmiller, of Chester, was officially sworn in at 10 a.m. Swartzmiller is a democratic member representing District 1, which covers Hancock County and part of Brooke County.

Swartzmiller first was elected in 2000 and served until 2014. During his tenure, he served as assistant majority whip from 2005-2013 and as speaker pro tempore. He also chaired the Homeland Security Committee, which was created shortly after September 11.

Swartzmiller worked for the Department of Agriculture from 2015-2017.

Swartzmiller earned his bachelor’s degree from West Liberty State College and his master’s from Mountain State University.

“I’m certainly honored to be back. I look forward to working with everyone to move West Virginia forward,” Swartzmiller said.

Larry Kump, of Falling Waters, also was sworn in Monday morning. Kump is a republican member representing District 59, which covers part of Berkeley and Morgan counties.

His swearing-in was ceremonial because the West Virginia Secretary of State had not yet certified all votes from that district.

Kump first was elected in 2010 and served until 2014 in the West Virginia House of Delegates.

“There are still things that need to be done,” Kump said. “It’s both a sacrifice and a privilege to serve. I’m pleased and proud to do it.”

Kump earned his bachelor’s degree from Frostburg State University and an associate’s degree from Hagerstown Community College.

He also has served as the executive director of the Indiana State Employees Association and as the regional president of the Assembly of Governmental Employees.



Tuesday, November 27, 2018 - 03:06 PM

Joint Committee on Flooding updated on RISE

The Joint Committee on Flooding met Tuesday and heard an update on the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management—Federal Grant Management and an update on the RISE program.

Earlier this month, members of the Post Audits Subcommittee heard a report from the Performance Evaluation and Research Division on the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (DHSEM). FEMA placed DHSEM on manual reimbursement effective Jan. 13, 2016.

FEMA notified the department in a November 2015 letter about the state's placement on manual reimbursement. The report said the action was a result of several years of the department’s inability to comply with grant requirements and failing to remedy issues-- specifically, issues regarding sub-recipient monitoring.

Manual reimbursements may add as much as 90 days of additional time for any reimbursement request exceeding $100,000.  

Only West Virginia and Puerto Rico are subject to this manual reimbursement process, according to the report.

In Tuesday’s meeting, committee members heard from Jimmy Gianato, a Homeland Security consultant. Gianato mentioned issues with sub-recipient monitoring, which he said has been a problem since 2010.

“The biggest challenge is not having enough staff to do sub-recipient monitoring and do disaster recovery,” Gianato told the committee.

The manual reimbursement penalty affects the Hazard Mitigation Grants program, Public Assistance grants, the Community Assistance program, Cooperating Technical Partners, the Emergency Management Performance grants and includes all open grants, including the 2016 flood grants, according to the PERD report. Gianato said FEMA lifted the manual reimbursement requirement during the 2016 floods but only for that event.

Michael Todorovich, director of the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, also addressed the committee Tuesday. Todorovich said the department is working on policies to improve oversight of the grants.

“I truly believe you will see some significant positive results,” Todorovich said.

Committee members asked about steps the department is taking to prevent manual reimbursements in the future.

Todorovich said the department has a full monitoring staff that is part of internal review.

Committee members also asked if the department is working to improve poor sub-recipient monitoring. Todorovich said there had been problems with returning phone calls expeditiously but the department is working on a system where every phone call that comes in is logged, assigned to someone and noted when it's completed.

Todorovich said he is working on a spreadsheet to give to committee members on grants, detailing the amount of money available, the amount of money spent, and the remaining amount of money.

Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, adjutant general, said his biggest priorities are communication, management, hiring more people, and following up. He said staffing challenges have been part of the problem.

“We want to build as much capability internally for the state that we can afford to make sure that we have that capability going forward,” Hoyer said.  

“I want to build a capable staff in the state of West Virginia so when FEMA has a disaster somewhere else, they want to call on us going forward,” Hoyer said.

Committee members also heard updates on the RISE program. The Legislative Auditor previously conducted an audit of the RISE program, detailing issues with construction companies that did work for the program. 

Justin Robinson, director of the Post Audit Division, and Adam Fridley, legislative audit manager, said they anticipate releasing a report in December.

Fridley said since the time of the last report, the West Virginia Development Office has executed new contracts. He said all active cases in the system are currently under contract.

Hoyer said there are 410 cases outstanding – 171 that require total reconstruction, 153 that require some form of rehabilitation, and 86 mobile home replacement units. So far, 39 homes have been completed.

Hoyer said there are contracts in place to manage these 410 cases. However, of those 410, he said there may be other issues including environmental assessments before going into the queue to the actual contractors.

Legislators asked Hoyer about the timeframe to complete these outstanding cases.

“We’re on a good path but I still believe … we have 24 months of work to do with the goal of expediting as quickly as we can,” Hoyer said, noting weather is a factor determining how quickly work is done.

Legislators also asked Hoyer if West Virginia is still listed as a “slow spender” under the U.S. department of Housing and Urban Development. West Virginia is now listed as “on pace.” “Slow spender” means spending less than 10 percent of the monthly pace required to fully use the grant by the target closeout date, which is Dec. 30, 2023. “On pace” means spending greater than 10 percent of the monthly pace.



Sunday, November 11, 2018 - 06:21 PM

Joint Committee on Government and Finance Hears October Revenue Numbers

Legislators heard an update of General Revenue figures during Sunday’s Joint Committee on Government and Finance Subcommittee meeting.

Deputy Revenue Secretary Mark Muchow presented October number, where collections were $359.2 million, which was about $2.3 million above estimates. Muchow said this is 1.5 percent above last year’s numbers.

Muchow said year-to-date collections totaled more than $1.478 billion, which was $122 million above estimate. He said October marks a 13.5 percent growth rate the first four months into the 2019 fiscal year.

“This is a strong growth rate,” Muchow said.

Muchow said October’s numbers were attributed to a few factors including consumer sales tax and severance tax. The state was $4.2 million above estimate in consumer sales tax and 14.4 percent ahead of last year.

Personal income tax took a pause. He said personal income tax was $6.5 million below estimate but he said the figures are still strong and were 11.7 percent ahead of last year.

Muchow said severance tax was $5.4 million above estimate and  50.4 percent ahead of last year.

 He said oil and gas had higher production numbers, representing a more stable pricing compared to last year. He said numbers are much closer to the national average this year as compared to last year. However, he said there is caution for severance tax because recently, oil prices have taken a dip. 



Sunday, November 11, 2018 - 05:59 PM

Post Audits Subcommittee Hears Three Reports

Legislators heard three reports during Sunday’s Post Audits Subcommittee meeting.

The first report was a Performance Evaluation and Research Division Report on the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management – Federal Grant Management.

FEMA placed the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (DHSEM) on manual reimbursement effective Jan. 13, 2016.

FEMA notified the department in a November 2015 letter about the state being placed on manual reimbursement—a penalty for not following federal grant requirements dating back to 2009.  Manual reimbursements may add as much as 90 days before the state could get reimbursed for expenditures totaling more than $100,000. The penalty affected multiple grant programs.

 West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety Secretary Jeff Sandy said he was not aware of the FEMA letter. 

 “It’s disappointing to my staff and the governor’s staff that we were unaware of that letter,” Sandy said.

The Department of Homeland Emergency Management was moved under supervision of Major General James Hoyer, the Adjutant General.

The report determined deficiencies in internal control and management resulted in federal financial penalties. Preliminary recommendations include creating policies and procedures and reporting to the Legislature detailing actions taken.

Hoyer said he has created a matrix of outstanding issues, met with the FEMA Region 3 executive who provided additional fulltime support on behalf of FEMA, and is working to implement updated policies and procedures to address issues. Hoyer asked lawmakers to give him until the January Post Audits Subcommittee meeting to give an update.

***

Legislators also heard a letter report on the Bureau of Juvenile Services Inventory Management.

Back in February, Sandy requested a series of inventory audits on agencies and divisions under his purview. The Bureau of Juvenile Services is within the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation. It operates 17 Youth Reporting Centers and 10 Juvenile Centers statewide.

The Legislative Auditor determined Juvenile Services’ inventory management system was not operating in compliance with state code or the Department of Administration’s Surplus Property Operations Manual. The Legislative Auditor further found that the inventory management system does not reliably track the agency's assets  and does not adequately safeguard those assets from misappropriation.

The inventory record in wvOASIS included 1,880 items, which had a total original acquisition cost of about $31 million. The audit found 180 items—including riding mowers, snow blowers, printers, computers, a bandsaw and a welder—did not list serial numbers. There were 15 items that did not have asset tag numbers.

The audit found that 309 items in Juvenile Services’ inventory record did not have the correct physical locations recorded.

The Legislative Auditor recommended developing corrective action plans to ensure that the asset record in wvOASIS is complete and accurate. The Legislative Auditor also recommended Juvenile Services update its current policy on recording inventory.

***

Legislators also heard a legislative audit report on the Division of Correction’s 25-year lease of the former West Virginia Penitentiary. Nick Hamilton, senior auditor, said last September, Sandy wrote a memo to the governor's office, expressing several concerns with the Division of Correction’s lease of the penitentiary to the Moundsville Economic Development Council (MEDC).

The report found that from February 1997 to July 2013, the Division of Corrections paid an undetermined amount  electric utility costs that were MEDC's responsibility. The report further said from July 2013 to April 2018, the division paid about $204,000 for electric utility cost.

The audit further said poorly drafted language in insurance requirements in a 2004 lease agreements and a 2013 Memorandum of Understanding potentially opened the state to increased liability.

The report found MEDC lost its IRS tax-exempt status for failure to file. As a nonprofit, it was eligible for insurance under the state Board of Risk and Insurance Management (BRIM) but the revocation of its tax-exempt status left questions. BRIM requested a legal opinion, which said the statute does not preclude MEDC’s eligibility for coverage due only to its tax exempt status revocation.

The Legislative Auditor recommended the Division of Corrections comply with the 2013 Memorandum of Understanding and only pay for utilities in which it is responsible. The Legislative Auditor additionally recommended the Division of Corrections try to collect the $203,000 it paid for MEDC's electric utility service. 

Additionally, the Legislative Auditor recommended the Division of Corrections to establish a new lease agreement with MEDC and recommended the Legislature to review state code regarding the state Board of Risk and Insurance Management insuring nonprofit entities to determine if the nonprofit is required to be an IRS 501(c)(3) designated entity or a federal tax-exempt entity.

In the report, the Legislative Auditor also expressed concerns with allowing a state agency to enter into a 25-year lease agreement without requiring review of the language, terms and potential long-term effects of the agreement. The Legislative Auditor recommended the Legislature consider drafting legislation requiring any leasing of state property for a period more than 10 years to be reviewed for content to ensure duties and responsibilities are clearly defined.

Suzanne Park, director of MEDC addressed legislators Sunday. She said the organization discovered during the last legislative session that the lease had been terminated effective this year.

She also said she was not aware that the organization’s nonprofit status had been discontinued until the issue later was brought to her attention.

She said she feels it is important that if the state look at the lease, they should remodel it.



Friday, November 02, 2018 - 10:45 AM

Tom Azinger sworn in to House of Delegates 10th District

Tom Azinger was sworn in Friday in the West Virginia House of Delegates chamber to fill the seat in District 10.

Gov. Jim Justice appointed Azinger earlier this week to fill the seat vacated by Delegate Frank Deem, R-Wood, who passed away earlier last month at age 90. Deem served a total of 48 years in the Legislature and was first elected to the House in 1954.

Azinger, of Vienna, previously served 10 consecutive terms in the House from 1995-2015.



Tuesday, October 02, 2018 - 02:19 PM

Justice Beth Walker Acquitted in Impeachment Trial

Following roughly two hours of deliberations on Tuesday afternoon, the Senate voted 32-1 to acquit Justice Beth Walker in her impeachment trial. Senator Stephen Baldwin (D-Greenbrier), was the lone vote to impeach Walker.

After the vote, the Senate recessed for 15 minutes to consider a resolution, before returning to adopt Senate Resolution 205 . The resolution publicly reprimands Walker.

Earlier Tuesday, Mike McKown, the former state budget director who now works in the state auditor’s office, was the final witness to testify in the trial. McKown described to lawmakers how flat the state budget was over the years in question, as the Supreme Court continued to spend freely.

Delegate John Shott then gave his closing statement on behalf of the House Managers. He argued that the Supreme Court was infected with a sense of entitlement and that Walker wasted no time joining the party. He again went over the taxpayer funded lunches, the hired opinion at a cost of $10,000, and the $130,000 office renovation.

Walker's attorrney Mike Hissam argued that Walker, as a new member of the court, did her best to right the ship and change the culture of entitlement.

The Senate is adjourned until Oct. 15 at 9 a.m.



Monday, October 01, 2018 - 04:55 PM

Impeachment Trial for Justice Beth Walker Begins

The first of four scheduled impeachment trials, this one concerning Justice Beth Walker, began at 9 a.m. today in the Senate chamber.

The proceedings began with acting Chief Justice Paul T. Farrell giving the senators, who are acting as the jury in the court of impeachment, instructions. He directed them to remain impartial, stay off social media, and refrain from discussing the facts of the case among one another prior to the deliberations portion of the trial.

Farrell quickly denied Walker’s motion to dismiss the impeachment charge against her.

Walker was the first witness to testify. She fielded questions from House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, who is presenting the House’s case on behalf of the House Managers. A portion of Shott’s line of questioning focused on working lunches brought in for justices and staff on days when the court heard cases or met to discuss opinions and other court business.

Walker reiterated multiple times that she regrets participating in the lunches, but does not view them as illegal. Walker also noted that she promptly paid back one-fifth of the expenses related to the lunches for 2017, her first year on the court.

When asked about hiring outside counsel to write an opinion for her, Walker testified that she was working with two law clerks rather than the standard practice four, and that one of those two was on maternity leave. She instructed the court to hire Barbara Allen, who now is the court’s administrative director, to write the opinion for her at a cost of $10,000. Walker testified her staff costs were lower than any of the other justices.

Shott also asked Walker about the $130,000 renovation to her office that came only a few years after former Justice Brent Benjamin had spent $264,000 remodeling the same space. Walker expressed regret for the remodel, saying she should have reassessed the project.

During his opening statements, Walker’s attorney Mike Hissam, argued his client “did not engage in any conduct that would justify the extraordinary remedy of removing her from office against the will of the voters.”

Hissam also argued that Article of Impeachment XIV, the only article Walker is charged with, is confusing. He called it "everything and nothing" and referred to it as "a catch-all mishmash of all sorts of administrative practices, many of which Beth never had anything to do with."

In discussing impeachment under cross examination from Hissam, Walker said she views impeachable offenses as stealing, lying and corruption. She contends she never engaged in any of that behavior.

Other witnesses for the House Managers included: Justin Robinson, Director of the Post Audits Division for the West Virginia Legislature, Sue Racer-Troy, the CFO for the WV Supreme Court of Appeals, and JB McCuskey, State Auditor of West Virginia.

The House Managers have one additional witness scheduled to testify tomorrow at 9 a.m. Following that testimony, the defense will put on its case.

The Senate and the Impeachment Court have adjourned until tomorrow at 9 a.m.

 



Tuesday, September 18, 2018 - 01:49 PM

Hoyer updates lawmakers on flood recovery efforts

West Virginia National Guard Adjutant General Maj. Gen. James Hoyer updated lawmakers about the progress of flood recovery efforts and the process going forward.

In Tuesday’s Joint Legislative Committee on Flooding, Hoyer told legislators that he feels the program is moving in the right direction.

“I’ve got the sense that individuals impacted by RISE believe that the program is moving in the right direction and have confidence in the program,” Hoyer said. “They may not be happy with the speed that it’s going because of state and federal regulations … but there is a confidence that we are working exponentially to take care of issues the best we can and we are communicating effectively.”

Hoyer said there have been 25 homes –all mobile home units-- signed off as completed. He said 424 cases are still tracked through the system. Of those, 166 are total reconstruction, about 160 are rehabilitation and 98 are mobile home units.

He said those 424 individual family cases were within the original construction piece under four contracts, which were recently increased to nine contracts to meet requirements under state law.

“Those four contracts go to nine contracts primarily because of the way we have to structure to meet the requirements under state purchasing law," Hoyer said. "This is a regional approach which gave us an advantage, we thought, going into the bid process, because someone at the local level may bid.”

Delegate Kayla Kessinger, R-Fayette, asked Hoyer about the timeframe moving forward. Hoyer said there is still work to do.

 

 “I will tell you that we have 18-24 months-worth of work to be close to having the bulk of this closed out,” Hoyer said. “I would hate to say anything less because if we run into environmental issues on the property, that extends it out. Now, we have the appropriate framework in place. We have the right people working it but we still have a long way to go to take care of families.”



Monday, September 17, 2018 - 05:31 PM

Legislators hear update on medical marijuana banking

Legislators heard an update on banking issues with the state’s medical marijuana program and also approved sending a letter requesting a legal opinion from the West Virginia Attorney General on proposed banking solutions.

Diana Stout, general counsel with the West Virginia State Treasurer’s office addressed lawmakers during Monday’s Joint Committee on Health. Stout said the office has run into issues in crafting possible solutions. She said banking institutions relayed their concerns to the office following U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinding the Cole Memo.

Stout said the office mainly deals with BB&T, which told the office it would not be willing to accept medical marijuana funds. She said U.S. Bank has mentioned similar concerns, saying both cited the rescission of the Cole Memo.

Stout said the Treasurer issued a request for information, soliciting responses from 70 different financial institutions, but only received two proposals back. She said neither had much information and wouldn’t provide more information until they were competitively bid.

Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, asked her if she felt the reason banks have not reached out is because they want to wait until it’s opened up to bid. Stout said she hoped that was true. She said there are some cases where a bank’s board of directors are not willing to accept money from the program.

Stout said in May, the office sent a letter to the governor outlining two options—one a state bank and another, a closed-loop system. She said North Dakota has experienced economic stimulus from its state bank. However, she said there are certain things the Bank of North Dakota does to generate money that is already handled by other agencies in West Virginia. She said a state bank would be expensive. Delegate Mick Bates, D-Raleigh, asked how much it would cost and Stout estimated without capital cost, it would be about $2-3 million to start.

Stout said the office felt the closed-loop system as the best option. To describe this system, Stout used the example of signing up for a Lowes card, which would only be usable within that system, whereas an open-loop system would allow a person to use that card at other home improvement stores. She said there were concerns that an open-loop system would be less manageable.

Stout said the governor asked for a legal opinion from the West Virginia Attorney General regarding banking solutions but she was not aware of a response as of Monday.

Delegate Andrew Robinson, D-Kanawha, made a motion for the committee to urge the Attorney General’s office to provide a legal opinion on banking solutions and separately request the Senate President and House Speaker to request a legal opinion of their own, which would be identical to the governor’s request. His motion was adopted in a 15-7 vote.



Monday, September 17, 2018 - 05:22 PM

Lawmakers question acting lottery director about sports wagering implementation

Lawmakers heard an update about the implementation of the sports wagering bill and also expressed concerns about whether there would be potential changes to emergency rules.

Legislators heard from Acting State Lottery Director Doug Buffington in Monday’s Joint Standing Committee on Finance. Buffington became acting lottery director earlier this month following the resignation of Alan Larrick. Buffington explained the progress of implementing Senate Bill 415, which authorized wagering on certain sports and went into effect in May. 

Buffington said the first casino operator license was issued to Hollywood Casino in Charles Town on Aug. 14. This was followed by Wheeling Island and Mardi Gras on Aug. 20 and The Greenbrier on Aug. 22.

He said Hollywood hosted a soft opening on Aug. 30 and a grand opening on Sept. 1. He said that first weekend generated about $295,000 in tax revenue.

Buffington said The Greenbrier hosted a soft opening Sept. 13 and a grand opening Sept. 14.

For Wheeling Island and Mardi Gras, the soft opening is scheduled for Sept. 27, Buffington said.

Delegate Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, asked about emergency rules enacted and whether the lottery was contemplating changes of those rules.

Buffington said there had been comments from leagues regarding official data, which he said uses results from a source such as Major League Baseball. He said there have also been comments on opting out from certain wagers.

Espinosa asked if the Lottery has had conversations with major sports leagues on proposed changes. Buffington said he didn’t know whether the Lottery Commission or Larrick had those conversations but said he had not personally had those conversations.

“I hope you really will consider the fact that there is virtually no support in the Legislature to require private entities to enter into contractual agreements,” Espinosa said. “I hope the commission will think long and hard before implementing any changes in the emergency rules requiring casinos to enter into those arrangements.”

House Finance Chair Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, asked if the lottery had a timeframe to act on the comments. Buffington said there is no exact date. He said the comment period ended about a week ago. In response to a question from Nelson, Buffington said the emergency rules by the Legislature are in effect and any changes to those would have to go before the Legislature.

Senate Finance Chair Craig Blair, R-Berkely, said he doesn’t want to see any changes to the emergency rules. 

“These tracks and casinos put their resources on the line to put in place sports gambling,” Blair said. “To come in and change the game before we come back and say it’s not the will of the Legislature, is irresponsible. … That’s telling to any industry wanting to come to West Virginia that we’re changing the rules in the middle of the game.”

The committee also heard from Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch. Crouch updated lawmakers on supplemental appropriations and expenditures to help address the opioid crisis.

Crouch said the drug problem is closely correlated with the child welfare crisis in West Virginia. He said 85 percent of kids in foster care are there because of parents dealing with substance abuse. Crouch said from 2015-2017, there was a 37.6 percent increase in overdose deaths. Over that same period of time, there was a 35.8 percent increase in foster care placement.

“We are tackling the child welfare problem at the same time we are tackling the drug problem,” Crouch told legislators.

Crouch said there has been federal legislation with the Family First Prevention Act, which would allow the DHHR to try to keep children in their homes. The law does not take effect until October 2019.

“This is a huge change in how we are able to deal with the child welfare problem,” Crouch said. “We are looking at those regulations seriously.”

Crouch said the agency is also looking at developing more partnerships with the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety. He estimated there are 19,000 people who are incarcerated who need treatment. He said the agency also is working with the courts on looking into alternative sentencing guidelines.

“If we get individuals into treatment, ultimately, that’s the goal. That’s what we want to see,” Crouch said.



Sunday, September 16, 2018 - 07:42 PM

Audit examines senior status judges payments, depletion of Supreme Court funds

A recent audit delved deeper into the depletion of the West Virginia Supreme Court’s re-appropriated funds and also looked into payments of senior status judges that auditors say exceeded statutory limits. 

Adam Fridley with the Post Audit Division presented the offices’ findings to legislators at Sunday’s Post Audits Subcommittee. This audit marks the fourth in a series of reports looking into spending within the state’s highest court.

The most recent audit covered three main issues—the depletion of $29 million of re-appropriated funds over a period of four fiscal years, renovations to the court coming totaling $3.4 million, and payments of senior status judges that exceeded statutory limits.

In 2012, the court had a balance of $29 million in surplus re-appropriated funds but over the course of the four fiscal years, the balance was spent down to $333,514. A majority of all re-appropriated funds were spent within two categories-- payroll and unclassified/current expenses. The 2014 fiscal year marked the greatest decrease in the four-year period, where the balance was reduced by $13.4 million. 

Fridley said the court’s renovation costs totaled $3.4 million between 2012 and 2016. Fridley said several of the renovation projects do not contain invoice documentation with sufficient detail for analysis.  The report determined the total combined cost of renovations to justices' chambers totaled $1,943,357 but the office was only able to provide a detailed analysis for about 81 percent of the total. 

Former Justice Brent Benjamin's renovations totaled $264,836 including $25,000 in flooring and $21,000 for window treatments. The largest categories of expenditures for Benjamin’s office were fixtures and infrastructure.

Justice Beth Walker took over Benjamin’s office when she was elected. Renovations totaled $130,655 including an additional $9,000 for flooring placed over the floors installed during Benjamin’s time in the office.

The largest categories of expenditures for Walker’s office was furniture, which was 23 percent.

For former Justice Menis Ketchum, renovations totaled $188,931, including $9,000 on work done to Cass Gilbert desks. Fridley said Ketchum disputed more than $18,000 in the renovation costs. The largest expenditures were for infrastructure at 43 percent.

For Chief Justice Margaret Workman, the total cost of renovations was $112,780 including $12,000 for cabinets, $35,000 for flooring. The largest category for Workman’s renovations was flooring at 32 percent of the total cost.

For suspended Justice Allen Loughry, renovations totaled $367,915 including the purchase of a $32,000 sofa. The largest category for Loughry’s renovations was fixtures at 36 percent.

For former Justice Robin Davis, renovations totaled $503,668. The largest category was fixtures at 38 percent including glass countertops, and infrastructure at 35 percent.

The report also looked into the payment of senior status judges. Fridley said the court allowed 10 judges to exceed the compensation cap. The report found this happened 20 separate times between 2009 and 2017 for a total of $271,000. 

In 1991, statute authorized the court to empanel judges admitted to senior status. These judges serve as temporary replacements when active judges are absent from the bench. In 1991, the court entered an administrative order that held that the compensation, per diem and retirement compensation of retired judges admitted to senior status shall not exceed the salary of a sitting judge. The cap amounted to about $116,000 per year before July 1, 2011 and $126,000 for every year after that.

The report found 34 different judges were appointed from 2011-2017 and 10 senior status judges since 2009 were paid in excess of the cap—six were paid in excess on more than one occasion.

Some, Fridley said, were not greatly in excess, but many were in excess by more than $10,000.

Fridley said judges were converted from employees to independent contractors when they were approaching the cap.

An IRS audit found these judges along with other employees paid as independent contractors don’t meet the requirements of independent contractors. The court was required to pay a settlement of $227,000 for eight notices of adjustment.

Fridley said other senior status judges had unused days of eligibility while other judges were overpaid. The report found that each year, the court’s panel of judges retained 223 to 1,042 cumulative unused days of eligibility.

Barbara Allen, interim administrative director, responded to the audit at Sunday’s meeting.  Allen first addressed the issue of the re-appropriated funds. She said the court wasn’t spending money on frivolous things.

“We spent money on drug courts, employee services, law clerks, computer services—during this group of years, there were two across-the-board raises that took up some of the regular budget. One raise was 2 percent and that went to every member of the court family,” Allen said, noting that all 55 counties including circuit judges, magistrates, and probation officers were part of that raise.

Allen said the court has 25-26 senior status judges but not all of them want appointments.

“We have a number of retired judges who have health issues that prevent them from doing any work at all,” she said. “A number only take appointments in their home counties or contiguous counties. Others will only take appointments at certain times of the year. What you will find when you go through the information is that most judges are willing and able to the extent they can to take short-term appointments. … It’s very difficult to find judges who want long-term appointments, especially in areas that are hard to get to.”

Allen also said some judges went over the cap by a small amount.

Last month, the House adopted articles of impeachment against all state Supreme Court justices. The Senate met last Tuesday and scheduled trials for Walker, Workman, Davis and Loughry.

Ketchum faces a charge under a federal information and Loughry faces several charges under a federal indictment.




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