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Biden taps Gupta to be next US drug czar; WV leaders praise president's pick

Dr. Rahul Gupta, the former top health officer in the Mountain State, is President Joe Biden’s pick to become the nation’s top anti-drug official.

If the U.S. Senate approves his nomination, Gupta will be the first physician to lead the Office of National Drug Control Policy, a position commonly referred to as the drug czar.

It’s the second time during his first year in office that Biden has tapped a West Virginian for a federal post. Biden appointed Gayle Manchin, wife of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., as co-chairwoman of the Appalachian Regional Commission earlier this year.

Gupta’s nomination comes three years after he left his role as state health officer to work for March of Dimes.

State leaders congratulated Gupta on Tuesday afternoon, saying they hope his experience in West Virginia, considered the epicenter of the opioid addiction crisis, would be the driving force for allocating resources back to the state, as well as being beneficial for the rest of the country.

Sen. Manchin noted that Gupta’s medical background and practical experience in West Virginia, which has led the country in drug overdose rates for more than two decades, will bring needed medical knowledge to “this public health crisis.”

“Dr. Rahul Gupta’s nomination to serve as the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy means someone with firsthand knowledge of the opioid crisis, especially in West Virginia, will be coordinating the national fight against the drug epidemic that continues to ravage our nation,” Manchin said.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., likewise commended Gupta's nomination.

“Dr. Gupta understands the crippling impact the addiction crisis has had on West Virginia. Looking forward to working together to increase drug prevention efforts, support treatment and recovery, and reduce the supply of deadly drugs in our communities.”

Gupta worked as director and health officer for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department from 2009 to 2014, when he was appointed commissioner of the West Virginia Bureau of Public Health in 2015.

Gupta has a medical degree from the University of Delhi and a master’s degree in public health from the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

Gov. Jim Justice said no one is “better suited to this important job than someone who represented a state and a people where this crisis really hits close to home.”

“During his time in West Virginia, Dr. Gupta led the way in our battle against the opioid crisis — something that has and continues to touch the lives of nearly every one of our residents in some way,” Justice said in a statement Tuesday. “Under his leadership, our state had turned a corner in that fight.”

State Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, congratulated Gupta, saying his nomination is “outstanding news for West Virginia, and for the entire country.”

“Dr. Gupta is a world-class advocate for public health,” Blair said. “His leadership was critical in West Virginia’s fight against the opioid epidemic, and his guidance was critical as we developed new policies to protect and support our families who experience substance abuse disorder. I look forward to the great things our country will accomplish in this fight under his leadership.”

Blair noted in the news release that the state Senate unanimously adopted Senate Resolution 24 during the 2021 regular session, which urged Biden to appoint Gupta to the role.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, who also is a physician, was the lead sponsor.

“I’m ecstatic to learn that Dr. Gupta has been nominated to lead this office,” Takubo said. “Dr. Gupta is truly a bipartisan, nonpolitical person, whose interests are pure. If he’s able to accomplish even a fraction of what he did for West Virginia in his new federal role, the United States will really be headed in a positive direction with handling the opioid epidemic.”

Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, likewise congratulated Gupta, saying Biden has “shown favor to West Virginians through his appointments.”

“Dr. Gupta began important work in combating the opioid crisis here in the Mountain State, and left big shoes to fill,” Baldwin said.

Charleston barbecue joint nearly ready to roll

It’s next to the tracks on Railroad Avenue, which runs parallel to the rails from its West Side intersection with Maryland Avenue and Washington Street West to its short end about 100 yards away at Watts Street. Along the way is the rear of Denver’s Depot, a venerable West Side watering hole.

But the rest is curious. A small, blockish building forms the rear foundation. The rest is metal slats, painted red, yellow and black; sturdy decking; and startlingly good art renderings from wandering artist Andy King.

King skillfully has presented in spray paint — among other animated figures — Hank Hill from “King of the Hill,” Cleveland from “Family Guy” and Chef from “South Park.” The slats and wood covered with artwork are a brightly colored surprise in the otherwise drab alley.

Still, it’s the guts of Phat Daddy’s on Da Tracks that carry the most interest. It began innocently enough, when John Bullock asked Cameron Cordon a question.

“Hey, Cameron. You want this chicken coop?” Bullock said.

“What would I want with a chicken coop?”

“You’ll think of something.”

CHRIS DORST | Gazette-Mail 

Colorful spray painting by Andy King, a wandering painter, cover the fence surrounding Phat Daddy's on Da Tracks.

Bullock’s son, Tighe, rescued the coop from a West Side Go-Mart, where it wound up after a family traveling from Massachusetts to Oklahoma suffered a blowout on their trailer and promptly ditched it. Knowing the Bullocks are noted scavengers, a friend alerted Tighe to the find and he retrieved the coop. Tighe has bought and rehabilitated Elk City properties since 2008, and his father has taken the lead on other ventures.

Cordon inspected the coop. It was more or less the size of a food booth, or small food truck. A lifelong culinarian, Cordon had wanted to own his business for some time. Suddenly, the coop appeared more valuable. In February 2020, after he lost his job cooking, he enlisted friends to help on the cheap. His dream seems ready to materialize — Phat Daddy’s on Da Tracks. He plans on barbecuing brisket, pulled pork and whole chickens. Smoke should billow soon. Cordon said he is shooting for an August opening, although he already does catering.

“I’m 52,” Cordon said in a phone interview. “I’ve been working for other people for so long and I feel this is my opportunity to step up my game. I’ve invested all my unemployment from last year into this.”

John Bullock provided Cordon a piece of land for free, in effect expanding the burgeoning Elk City footprint. The Bullocks are trying to extend quaint-looking Elk City’s western and southern reaches. To Cordon, John Bullock’s overture is a show of kindness and good faith, despite their differences.

CHRIS DORST | Gazette-Mail 

Cameron Cordon has put a lot of sweat equity and cold cash into this fledgling business, Phat Daddy’s on Da Tracks. A company in Hurricane custom made this smoker.

“He’s a [former president Donald] Trump supporter, but his political opinions are his own,” Cordon said of John Bullock. “That has no effect on how I see him as a person. As far as I’m concerned, they haven’t flipped the script on me yet. They’ve been a help to me through this process.”

The Bullocks have attracted criticism for not having enough Black merchant representation in Elk City. John Bullock hired Cordon’s nephew to work construction and asked him if he knew anyone who wanted to start up a business. The nephew vouched for his uncle.

“He knows it’s the right thing to do,’” Cordon said of Bullock. “He’s in a Black community, one that has not been included in business and housing. It’s been a struggle for a lot of Black people. We want businesses to thrive, and that’s got to include everybody.”

Cordon is not actually in Elk City. He is on “the other side of the tracks” and outside the district’s boundary. Cordon, though, hastens to point out that John Bullock charged him no rent all of last year and has only recently begun to do so. It is less than $500 a month, he said.

“I don’t pay attention to none of that,” Cordon said. “I think my food will speak for itself. People will come. We’ll put security cameras out there. I’ll be doing some smoking, I’ll be out there at night. ... I don’t worry about what people say. I’m a Black man and this is America.

“I’ve been told I can’t do this and I can’t do that all my life. I’m not discouraged by any of that.”

Tighe Bullock said Cordon should be ready to open soon. He said he spent part of Monday helping Cordon satisfy fire department regulations.

“Cameron has been great,” Tighe Bullock said. “Every time he comes to a problem, he just takes it on the chin and keeps going. I’ve never heard him complain or act like anybody ever owed him anything. With every situation, it’s more like, ‘OK, what do we do next?’ ”

Monday afternoon caught Cordon and friends Billy Dyess, 55; Scott Lanham, 56; and King continuing to work on Phat Daddy’s. Dyess and Cordon fretted over the soaring price of wholesale food. Cordon offered that he bought a brisket — the chest of a cow — last year for $60. They are up to $92 now, he said. Dyess said chicken wing prices are out of this world.

CHRIS DORST | Gazette-Mail 

Andy King, who calls himself The Wandering Painter, helps out in the kitchen of Cameron Cordon's upcoming barbecue joint, Phat Daddy's on Da Tracks. Where King is painting used to be a chicken coop. 

Dyess and Lanham are helping Cordon with electrical, plumbing and carpentry needs. Are they working for free?

“Aw, hell no!” Cordon said, laughing. “But they’re doing it for a lot less than someone else would.”

Mavery Davis, 37, lives in one of Tighe Bullock’s apartments above Kinship Goods and Vandalia Donuts. He and the younger Bullock once were adversaries. At a Charleston Urban Renewal Authority meeting five years ago, Davis, who is Black, took issue with Bullock getting granted taxpayer money to finance residential and commercial ventures that only certain West Side residents could afford.

“I didn’t think it was an appropriate investment for people that live on the West Side of Charleston,” Davis said. “It’s no slight against Tighe. He was doing what he was supposed to be doing as a businessman. I would have appreciated from [the authority] some acknowledgment that rents are not affordable.”

Bullock said his rents are about $1-a-square-foot-per-month.

CHRIS DORST | Gazette-Mail 

Scott Lanham (left) and Billy Dyess are helping Cameron Cordon get ready for the opening of Phat Daddy's on Da Tracks.

Since then, the two have become friends, and Davis has gotten involved in revitalization efforts himself. Through his position as an officer in the national organization Seed Commons, which possesses a $30 million business capital loan fund, he is trying to obtain a sizable loan for Cordon. Business owners who accept a loan from Seed Commons only pay the debt back once they are turning a profit.

The idea, Davis said, is to develop not merely for profit but to improve the whole West Side, not only Elk City. The Bullocks have become more sensitive to that cause, Davis said, with Phat Daddy’s an example.

“The success of Phat Daddy’s literally means that the potential future success of other businesses is just right around the corner,” Davis said. “We can’t fix everything, but we can take a specific situation and do our best to develop Phat Daddy’s. Their success will allow us to pivot to help other developments and better include minorities and others on the lower end of the economic spectrum.”

WV school systems are requesting input on how to spend $739M in federal money. Kanawha alone is getting $82M.

The American Rescue Plan Act is providing $739 million to West Virginia county school systems, including $82 million to Kanawha County.

Through 4 p.m. Friday, the Kanawha school system is inviting public comment on its plan to spend that money. Comments may be emailed to comment@mail.kana.k12 .wv.us

The plan addresses a litany of pandemic-related academic and mental health issues, including:

  • “Significant declines” in yet-unreleased state standardized test scores.
  • Particularly large learning gaps in third and fourth grades.
  • “All-time high” failing grades, particularly in middle school.
  • Attempted suicides.

The county school system said 167 high schoolers and 204 middle schoolers reported “feeling suicidal” during the two weeks preceding a March survey. Kanawha’s total fall enrollment was 24,700.

The statewide deadline for county boards of education to vote on the required plans is Aug. 1, said Melanie Purkey, federal programs officer for the state Department of Education.

Kanawha schools spokeswoman Briana Warner wrote in an email that “almost all of the numbers are changing some” from what’s shown in the plan online.

It includes $26 million for more teachers, academic interventionists and aides.

In addition, $6 million would be allocated to “social and emotional support” — including more counselors, social workers and psychologists — and $7 million to summer- and after-school programs.

Kanawha also plans to spend $14 million to replace heating, ventilation and air-conditioning units, $2 million to replace windows and $2 million on “digital surveillance equipment upgrades,” which, Warner wrote, covers 120 high-resolution cameras.

“These would replace or augment existing aging or obsolete systems,” she wrote, allowing for accurate COVID-19 contact tracing in common places.

Purkey said every expenditure must relate to preventing, preparing for or responding to COVID-19. The plan Kanawha posted for public comment is a 20-slide PowerPoint presentation from June 14.

Purkey said last month that counties “are required to have stakeholder input in the process upfront.” Kanawha didn’t advertise community input opportunities before it created this draft plan.

“We have been receiving input on what is needed to help our students — in every way — throughout the year,” Warner wrote. Every principal was asked for recommendations “and those specific school needs are wrapped into this plan.”

“Parent/community feedback has been constant to both schools and the district,” she wrote.

Tamicah Owens, summer research associate for the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy think tank, urged parents and teachers to comment.

“It’s open to suggestions,” she said.

Owens said academic opportunity gaps have widened amid the pandemic for such groups as low-income students, racial minorities and those in foster care.

Visit kcs.kana.k12.wv.us and scroll down the home page to find the link to the plan.

Morrisey to vote no on Purdue Pharma settlement, challenges 'problematic' California

West Virginia’s attorney general will vote against a $10 billion settlement meant to confirm Purdue Pharma’s bankruptcy plan, arguing that it does not address the state’s needs.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday at the state Capitol Complex about the opioid litigation filed by his office, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said he plans to argue against the settlement before a bankruptcy judge Aug. 9 in New York.

The opioid manufacturer is accused of creating and fueling the opioid crisis by marketing its pills in a way that downplayed the long-term, severe effects of Oxycontin and encouraging doctors to prescribe it.

Purdue pleaded guilty in federal court earlier this year to one count of dual-object conspiracy to defraud the United States and to violate the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and two counts of conspiracy to violate the federal Anti-Kickback Statute.

The company filed for bankruptcy after thousands of lawsuits were filed against it, and a settlement looks likely to be approved next month after 15 states reached an agreement with the company, leaving nine standing against it.

Morrisey said the multi-billion-dollar settlement is largely based on a state’s population, which leaves those that were the most affected — such as Appalachian states — with little money. The most recent plan called for West Virginia to receive just 1%, about $81 million, as outlined in what is called the Denver Plan.

“Any such allocation formula fails to recognize the disproportionate harm caused by opioids in our state,” Morrisey said. “I look forward to arguing our case in court this August.”

In a separate lawsuit against opioid distributors, Cabell County and Huntington experts said it will take $2.6 billion to abate the crisis in that county alone.

Dozens of West Virginia cities and counties have filed lawsuits against Purdue Pharma, and Morrisey said he has been encouraging them to also speak out against the plan.

The settlement does include an intensity fund, which would help fund states more affected by the epidemic, but it amounts to only 1% of the settlement. He compared it to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which allocates 15% of its budget for its intensity fund so that more resources flow to states like West Virginia.

Morrisey said all states are contributing to the intensity fund, except one — California. He called it a “California Cash Grab” and called on that state to rethink opting out of contributing to the fund. He said California opting out could lessen the intensity pot by $60 million to $70 million.

“We think that it’s not only problematic legally, it’s problematic ethically,” he said. “And we’re going to keep pushing.”

Morrisey filed suit against Purdue Pharma and its former chief executive, Richard Sackler, in May 2019. He alleged that the firm created a false narrative about the addictive nature of the newest formula of OxyContin. It is the state’s second against the firm and follows a $10 million settlement in 2004.

The case is one of five pending lawsuits filed by the attorney general against opioid firms. One of those, Mallinckrodt, also is in bankruptcy and expected to use the same settlement formula as Purdue Pharma.

“West Virginia is going to fight this,” Morrisey said. “We want to step up and, unless substantial charges are made, we plan to vote no on bankruptcy Sept. 3.”

Morrisey said that, between these cases, a $10 million settlement with McKinsey & Co. and others, he hopes to create an abatement fund, which he thinks can be “meaningful.”

About 3,000 lawsuits have been filed by municipalities nationwide but, as universal settlements loom, Morrisey said West Virginia most likely will not be part of it.

“I’ve said no to that, unless they fix the flaws and these allocation formulas. It’s going to be a consistent, resounding, ‘No,’” he said.

However, he added that he is open to negotiations, should that change.

Justice: Vaccine incentive lottery is legit

Gov. Jim Justice defended the legitimacy of the West Virginia’s vaccine incentive sweepstakes saying during his COVID-19 briefing Tuesday, “You’ve got to know, from my standpoint, I don’t want to know who’s won until the Lottery picks them.”

With just 349,000 total sweepstakes entries, Justice suggested the odds of winning prizes in the vaccination incentive sweepstakes are comparatively good.

“Your chances of winning in this are off the charts,” he said. “Your chances of winning in this are pretty dadgum good.”

The governor’s comments were in response to a question about how he is able to surprise winners at their workplaces and other locations, when that information is not part of the vaccination sweepstakes entry form.

“We just find out where they are and everything, and we just kind of catch them off guard,” Justice said.

Questions about the legitimacy of the sweepstakes awards have lit up social media around the state, after claims that some winners have ties to Justice, particularly after a longtime employee of prominent state auto dealer and Republican Party leader Bill Cole won a $1 million prize, presented to her by Cole and Justice at Cole’s auto dealership on July 7.

Justice said Tuesday that he made arrangements to have the check presentation at the Cole dealership after learning that the million-dollar winner worked there.

“It just worked out that she worked at one of Bill Cole’s dealerships, so I called Bill, and told Bill, and Bill surely kept it secret and everything,” Justice said.

He stressed that the drawing of sweepstakes winners and alternates is handled entirely by the state Lottery, adding, “I’m sure they’re doing it all aboveboard.”

In fact, for the first three weeks of vaccination sweepstakes drawings, the Governor’s Office has awarded prizes solely to winners selected in state Lottery drawings, with no prizes awarded to date to alternates, or to people not on the Lottery’s list of winners.

Each Monday morning, Lottery officials draw names for winners in the vaccination incentive sweepstakes, using a random-number-generator software program. For major prizes, the Lottery draws a winner, and five alternates, in the event the winner or first alternates cannot be contacted regarding arrangements for receipt of the prizes.

The names of the weekly winners are sent to the Governor’s Office, and the office contacts the Lottery to request the name of the first alternate in the event that any winner cannot be contacted, according to Lottery officials.

Documents provided by the Lottery show that all recipients of sweepstakes prizes awarded on June 20, June 30, and July 7 were drawn by the Lottery as winners of those respective prizes.

Those documents include letters of certification of the drawings from independent auditors from the Charleston accounting firm of Suttle & Stalnaker.

The Governor’s Office has not yet responded to a Freedom of Information Act request for all written documentation for the process and procedures used to contact sweepstakes winners, including at which point winners who cannot be contacted are passed over for alternates.

The Governor’s Office also has not responded to a request to have a Gazette-Mail reporter observe the process for contacting winners.

Flight logs for the state’s King Air plane show that Justice flew to various locations on June 30 and July 7 to present prizes to sweepstakes winners.

On June 30, the governor flew from Charleston to Morgantown, where he presented a check to that week’s $1 million winner, and then flew to Lewisburg.

On July 6, the state plane flew from Charleston to Lewisburg, stayed at that airport overnight, and then, on July 7, flew Justice to Clarksburg and then on to Charleston. The governor on that day presented luxury pickups to sweepstakes winners in Fairmont and Clendenin.

During his July 8 briefing, Justice said he drove to the winners’ locations, saying, “We traveled a lot of miles, I can tell you that.”

He added, “We left Fairmont and drove to Clendenin, to see a young man whose name is William Harris.”

According to the flight logs from the Department of Administration’s Aviation Division, Justice also traveled on the state plane on June 4, June 9, June 16, June 22 and June 25.

On each of those flights, the governor boarded and deplaned in Lewisburg, with the exception of the June 16 itinerary, when he boarded in Lewisburg and deplaned in Beckley.

On March 1, Justice settled a lawsuit filed by Isaac Sponaugle contending that Justice was failing to comply with a state constitutional requirement that the governor reside in Charleston by agreeing to abide by the constitution.

“Per the terms of the settlement, Justice said he intends to live in Charleston ‘consistent with the definition of “reside” in the Supreme Court of Appeals’ opinion,’” the Gazette-Mail reported at the time.

The Governor’s Office did not respond to an inquiry regarding why Justice is using the state plane to fly to and from Lewisburg, where he has his primary residence, if he is residing in Charleston.

The Aviation Division billed the Governor’s Office $16,009 for the use of the airplane in June through July 7, including $3,696 for the two flight itineraries when Justice flew to present awards to sweepstakes winners.

According to the National Governors Association, West Virginia is one of 17 states conducting vaccination incentive sweepstakes. In at least two of those states, California and Ohio, the prize drawings have been televised live.