West Virginia Commerce secretary forced out after complaints
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The head of the West Virginia Department of Commerce has been forced out after a rash of complaints about poor management and residents receiving no help from a housing assistance program for 2016 flood victims.
Gov. Jim Justice announced the resignation of Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher in a news release Thursday. He said he hopes this “allows us to turn our attention to the full recovery of all of the victims of the 2016 flood.”
He said Thrasher did a “solid job” in economic development, but said Thrasher told him that recent media attention was a distraction.
Thrasher was quoted as saying he welcomes “the opportunity to help any way I can in the future.”
Justice named West Virginia National Guard adjutant general James Hoyer earlier this month to take control of the RISE West Virginia flood recovery program.
To accelerate the rebuilding process, Hoyer said case management systems under the Federal Emergency Management Agency and RISE West Virginia will be monitored separately through a disaster response group, the West Virginia Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Justice’s predecessor, had put the Commerce Department in charge of the program in 2016. Justice temporarily stopped it this year after it was discovered that a $17 million contract change order had not been properly vetted. Justice has since said that the consulting contract with Horne LLP, a Mississippi-based firm that helps states respond to natural disasters, will be reduced to $9 million or $10 million.
A subsequent investigation uncovered problems within the Commerce Department and the RISE program, which has received $150 million in community development block grants for disaster recovery from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Justice said the HUD money wasn’t made available until this past February. The RISE program began receiving applications for assistance last August but little money had been doled out. He also said Thrasher’s November 2017 news release claiming more than 1,100 families had been served was “totally inaccurate.”
“Without any question, there needs to be realignment within the Commerce Department,” Justice said at a news conference last week. “There are shortcomings and pitfalls that have happened. There’s no question that Commerce has dropped the ball.”
The governor didn’t specify then what the problems were, but said some employees would be terminated.
The 2016 floods were unleashed by severe thunderstorms that killed 23 people statewide and destroyed or damaged thousands of homes, businesses and schools. Senate President Mitch Carmichael and House of Delegates Speaker Tim Armstead wrote last month that many survivors still await help.
Later Thursday, the co-chairs of a legislative committee on flooding issued a statement saying an official inquiry into the RISE West Virginia program will begin at interim meetings this month. Sen. Ed Gaunch, R-Kanawha, and Delegate Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, said that although the committee was asked to hold at least one meeting on the program, multiple meetings will be necessary, according to the statement.
After Thrasher’s termination, House and Senate Democratic caucus leaders issued a statement critical of the administration of Justice, a Republican, on its handling of the flood program while taking swipes at the governor himself.
One lawmaker, Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, called for Justice to resign as well “so someone else can do the real work” of the governor.