CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A Lincoln County lawmaker is accused of sending politically motivated letters on state letterhead to targeted voters using taxpayer funds, according to a complaint filed this week with the state Ethics Commission.
Delegate Jeff Eldridge, D-Lincoln, is the latest Democrat to face accusations by Republicans of abusing a state law that allows lawmakers to send letters to constituents.
Rob Cornelius, a GOP political operative, filed the complaint earlier this week.
“This is quite simply the use of our tax dollars to protect an incumbent,” Cornelius wrote.
“We are all citizens and some of us are voters. But our legislators represent us all, not just those whose votes they are trying to garner.”
The complaint alleges Eldridge sent thousands of letters to a small corner of his district where he has faired poorly in past elections.
Eldridge represents the 22nd District, which covers most of Lincoln County and parts of Boone, Logan and Putnam counties. Cornelius accuses the delegate of sending all of his letters to Hurricane, the hometown of Republican challenger Michel Moffatt.
In a phone call Thursday, Eldridge denied any wrongdoing and said the complaint was obviously filed for political reasons.
“Let the judicial system work. If I did anything unethical, I want to know that,” Eldridge said.
“It’s my understanding that I did nothing wrong from the get go.”
Eldridge said he hasn’t seen a copy of the complaint; the Ethics Commission doesn’t send a copy of the complaint to the person accused unless a review board determines the case has merit.
The delegate said he sent 4,942 letters, citing a conversation with House Clerk Greg Gray. The clerk’s office sends the letters to addresses provided by the delegates.
The Cornelius complaint accuses Eldridge of sending many more. It does, however, reference information obtained from the clerk through a Freedom of Information Act that notes the same amount of mail, saying it cost $1,843.
While Eldridge said he might have sent the majority of the letters to Putnam County, he said he didn’t choose the city for political purposes.
“I disagree 100 percent if someone is saying I pinpointed people in Hurricane to send it to them because I run weak in Putnam county because that’s not true,” Eldridge said.
Instead, he said he sent the majority of letters to Hurricane because the city was the area in his district most affected by the chemical leak and water contamination earlier this year.
Example letters from Eldridge included in Cornelius’ complaint do include information about legislation crafted after the leak. However, the bulk of the letters highlight legislative issues typically considered favorites for conservatives — expanded gun rights, banning abortion 20 weeks after fertilization and opposition to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
While a January leak into the Elk River did enter a West Virginia American Water Co. treatment facility and contaminate drinking water for 300,000 West Virginians, Hurricane has its own public service district.
“We do have an interconnection from our Kanawha Valley system to supplement Hurricane’s system, but that interconnection was closed in wake of the spill,” said Laura Jordan, a spokeswoman for the water company.
Other areas of Putnam County were included in the water advisory, but Eldridge’s district covers an area in the southern area of the county near Hurricane.
Thursday afternoon Eldridge said he didn’t know Hurricane had its own water system that was unaffected by the leak. He said he had been told they were affected, but didn’t remember who’d told him.
Eldridge said he received the mailing list he used for the official letters from fellow Lincoln County Democratic Delegate Joshua Barker. Barker, appointed in July 2013 by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to fill a vacated seat, said Thursday he gave the list to Eldridge.
Barker said he got the list after logging onto www.votebuilder.com, a website used to obtain mass amounts of addresses and phone numbers for voters, and purchasing it from “the Democrat party.” He said he thought the information came from the state Democratic party.
Barker remembers purchasing the list for about $150 out of his own pocket to use for campaign purposes. He said he only asked for registered Democrats in the 22nd District.
“Why would I ask for Republicans? Why would I target certain areas?” Barker said.
“I was teeing up for a primary in an area that I had never run in before.”
Eldridge initially served in the House from 2004 until 2010, when he lost a bid for state Senate. In 2012 Eldridge ran again for the House, but it was his first time running in the newly created 22nd District following redistricting.
In the 2012 general election, he had the most or second most votes in Boone, Lincoln and Logan counties. In Putnam County he came in fourth, receiving almost 2,000 fewer votes than Moffatt. He defeated Moffatt by about 400 votes to earn the second of two seats in the district, according to data on the website for the West Virginia Secretary of State.
Although Barker said he used the list this primary season, he said he never used the list to send official mail. He said he spent $4 to send an American flag to a soldier in Afghanistan who he knew through a local football program.
Records included in Cornelius’ complaint also show Barker spent $4.
In a heated Democratic primary for the district, Barker lost by one vote to challenger Gary McCallister.
Eldridge received the most of the limited Democratic votes cast in the Putnam County portion of the district. Barker received 123 votes in the county, compared to 216 for Eldridge and 184 McCallister.
Barker said he thought Eldridge didn’t do anything wrong.
Cornelius’ complaint also says the mailing list was clearly a list of likely voters, and Hurricane voters represent 84 percent of the Putnam County votes for the 22nd District.
“Selecting homes and voters in Hurricane is not only an attempt to neutralize a specific electoral opponent (Moffatt) in an area strong for the opposing party,” Cornelius writes.
“It is selecting the most Republican precincts of (the district) in Putnam, ignoring more rural Putnam zip codes like Culloden.”
Eldridge said he’s never gotten any complaints about sending letters before. He said he’s lived in Lincoln, Logan and Boone counties, and wanted to make sure the Hurricane and Putnam residents in his district were adequately represented in the state Legislature.
State Democratic officials responded to previous allegations of Democrats abusing official mailings, saying the lawmakers were allowed to send letters to constituents. They also accused Republicans of ignoring letters sent by federal members of their own part.
The Ethics Commission recently discussed a request for an opinion from a lawmaker about constituent letters, but decided to hold off on making any decision. The commission doesn’t have another meeting scheduled; Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin must appoint new members and call the next meeting, according to a new state law.
Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.