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Ron Gregory: McCuskey did well in exposing Richwood events

April 6, 2019

West Virginia State Auditor J.B. McCuskey definitely has his hands full. Determined to do his job correctly, McCuskey thus has to spend long hours and expect the same of his staff in protecting the financial interests of West Virginians. Honestly, McCuskey is likely the unusual elected official who justifiably needs a budget increase.

That being said, every West Virginian — not just Richwooders — should be concerned about the report the auditor just released concerning the Nicholas County town. It appears officials mishandled millions of federal grant dollars meant to alleviate some of the pain of 2016′s flood. That’s the washout the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has referred to as a “thousand-year flood,”

The report is thorough and well done. It mirrors the hard work McCuskey and his staff put in during the past 18 months. It outlines alleged violations committed by public officials, apparently so they could prosper personally from the grant. It is, if proven true, violations of the law designed to enrich a few public officials while stealing funds intended for those devastated by the flood. If so, there is likely not adequate punishment available under the law to suffice.

That does not mean, of course, that American justice should not be carried out. That is the process begun last week with charges filed against four current and former town officials. Watching this one go through the court system is likely to be quite intriguing.

Interestingly, former Mayor Bob Henry Baber and relatively new Mayor Chris Drennen were both charged by Nicholas County Prosecutor Jonathan Sweeney. Also named were former City Clerk Abby McClung and Police Chief Allen Cogar. The chief’s alleged violations include using a state purchasing card to buy items for the city at a store he owned.

These officials are likely known by very few people statewide. But since I went to Richwood and covered this developing story 18 months ago, I’ll share a little insight. The two mayors — Drennen and Baber — are not particularly fond of each other politically. McClung appeared to fall from grace rather quickly. The police chief is the one who threw Baber to the floor at a city council meeting and forcibly removed him from city hall.

Cogar told me at the time that he was acting on orders from Prosecutor Sweeney.

Sweeney refused to take or return repeated phone calls that day from Baber’s lawyer, former South Charleston Mayor Richard Robb. He also refused to respond to my repeated requests to explain how it was proper to bar Baber from a public meeting in a public building. I’d still like to know. Now, Sweeney is prosecuting the police chief who blindly took orders from him regarding Baber and the apparent lack of First Amendment freedom in Richwood. Politics — and the law — do make strange bedfellows.

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We’ll follow this one closely for the ramifications it may have statewide.

Some readers contacted me when they got word of the charges to ask why Sweeney and not U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart was prosecuting these cases. I assured one and all that Stuart would not shy away except for good reason.

So I asked Stuart and his response basically stated his confidence in the process now underway. He also referred to the heavy workload his Southern District office is handling.

“My office is keenly aware of the Nicholas County matter,” said Stuart. “But given the volume of cases my office is currently handling, including public corruption cases, I am pleased the Auditor is working with local authorities in this case.”

Stuart added that he and his office are available to assist at any time.

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I had a chance to chat with U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito this week. When I asked if she missed her old state Legislature stomping grounds (pun intended) in light of troubles during the last session, she merely shook her head.

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The Kanawha County Republican Executive Committee has now taken the lead for “Dumbest political move of 2019” by voting no confidence in Republican Gov. Jim Justice. Actually, this could easily rank as “Dumbest political move this century.” Which Democrat are these Republican officials for?

Contact Ron Gregory at 304-533-5185 or ronjgregory@gmail.com.