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Officials disagree about notification of FEMA penalty

November 30, 2018

CHARLESTON — The Federal Emergency Management Agency penalized West Virginia for noncompliance with disaster recovery grants, but state officials can’t agree on who was ever informed of the sanction.

In a letter dated Nov. 12, 2015, FEMA wrote to the then-director of the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Jimmy Gianato, to notify him the agency placed the state under a “manual reimbursement” policy until it develops a plan to monitor grant sub-recipients.

This means DHSEM is required to use state funds to make an initial expenditure and is only reimbursed by FEMA when it has properly justified the request. West Virginia and Puerto Rico are the only two U.S. entities governed by such policy, according to a preliminary report from the legislative auditor’s office.

Per the report, Gianato failed to notify then-Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety Secretary Joe Thornton of the change. DHSEM exists under the DMAPS umbrella.

Testifying before the Joint Legislative Committee on Flooding on Tuesday, Gianato said he shared the letter with his employees at the time, but not necessarily with Thornton or his staff.

“We shared it internally with our staff. I don’t know that I specifically shared this letter with Secretary Thornton — Secretary (Jeff) Sandy was not here at the time in 2015, but the secretary’s office was generally aware of the audit issues, which were the cause for the manual draw-down,” he said.

The letter notes several instances of DHSEM failing to respond to issues in a timely manner or failing to respond in general, and multiple instances of FEMA delaying site visits due to DHSEM’s “inability to complete the required actions and/or simply not responding within the required timeframe,” according to the audit.

Gianato attributed some of the issues to a lack of adequate staffing in the office, coupled with a series of natural disasters the office had to deal with at the same time while monitoring the grant sub-recipients.

In an interview after the hearing, Gianato said while he could not find any specific email that would show he notified Thornton of the letter, the secretary was generally aware of the “information in the letter,” but not the letter itself.

However, he later walked this claim back, stating he was not aware if Thornton knew FEMA had put the state under a mandatory reimbursement protocol.

“I can’t say whether (Thornton) was (aware) or not. I can’t remember that I spoke to him about it, but there are other people in his office that may have been aware of it. I don’t

know,” Gianato said.

Legislative Auditor Aaron Allred sat in on the meeting Tuesday. When asked about Gianato’s remarks, he said this is not how he interpreted Thornton’s comments reported in the audit. Allred said when he spoke to Thornton, he was informed that it was the first time the former secretary heard about the manual reimbursement notice.

“It is my understanding that it is Secretary Thornton’s position that he did not know in any form or manner that West Virginia was on a manual reimbursement authority until we contacted him,” Allred said.

A receptionist at Thornton’s office directed a phone call to a spokesman for the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety. At roughly 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, DMAPS spokesman Lawrence Messina issued a statement.

“All we can say at this time is that we stand by the statements and information we have provided to the legislative auditors and the subcommittee on this specific topic,” he said.

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