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Gov. Justice names outgoing lawmakers as directors of commerce, minority affairs

December 5, 2018

CHARLESTON — After a two-month hiatus, Gov. Jim Justice’s first Capitol news conference since early October ran the gamut from awarding grants and updating state revenue reports and work of the PEIA Task Force to announcing two major, and potentially controversial, Cabinet appointments of former state legislators.

Justice named outgoing Sen. Ed Gaunch, R-Kanawha, as secretary of commerce and outgoing Del. Jill Upson, R-Jefferson, as secretary of the Herbert Henderson Office of Minority Affairs. Both Gaunch and Upson lost re-election bids in November.

Gaunch replaces ousted Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher, who was forced to resign in early June over ongoing problems with the RISE West Virginia flood recovery program.

Justice said Gaunch, a retired insurance company executive, brings a wealth of business and legislative experience to the position, and conceded it was difficult to find a qualified private-sector executive willing to take the job, given its relatively low pay and high level of media scrutiny.

“You may not want someone looking over your shoulder every five minutes about every single thing you do,” Justice said.

“When Ed became available, all the things just started coming into place,” he added. “We looked hard. We looked really hard, but we just weren’t able to find a man of Ed’s quality, in my opinion.”

Afterward, Gaunch said he does not anticipate making any immediate changes at Commerce, a department that includes a number of state agencies, including the state Development Office, Division of Tourism and Division of Natural Resources.

He said he believes the upturn in the state economy presents great opportunities for the department.

“Obviously, we’ve got some issues and problems, but we need to accentuate the positives,” he said.

Regarding Upson, who replaces William “Bill” White, who was fired in October after a sexual harassment allegation was filed against him, Justice downplayed a controversy this fall involving a national political action committee that Upson chaired.

The ad, produced by the Black Americans for the President’s Agenda PAC in support of a U.S. Senate candidate in Arkansas, was critical of actions by Senate Democrats during confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and at one point claimed, “White Democrats will be lynching black folk again.”

While Upson said she disapproved of the ad, had nothing to do with its production and demanded that it be taken off the air, the West Virginia NAACP called for Upson’s resignation from the Legislature, saying she must be held accountable for the “sick attempt to suppress the black vote.”

In response Tuesday, Justice called Upson a “superstar” and suggested that organizations such as the NAACP frequently are motivated by partisan politics.

“We don’t need this to be a political badminton thing,” he said.

Also Tuesday, Justice called the actions of two State Police troopers suspended for allegedly beating a 16-year-old suspect in Martinsburg “ridiculous and inexcusable,” and said they went “way beyond necessary force.”

“You’ve got 660-plus great State Troopers and this made them looked awful,” said Justice, who said he has not watched a dashcam video of the incident, but said he received a “scene-by-scene” description from State Police Superintendent Col. Jan Cahill.

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