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First inmate in WV system tests positive for COVID-19

For the first time, an inmate in a state-run West Virginia prison or jail has tested positive for COVID-19, Gov. Jim Justice announced Tuesday.

The 62-year-old man is at the Huttonsville Correctional Center and Jail in Randolph County.

He’s in “good condition in medical isolation,” according to a news release from the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety. The release said he had shown symptoms.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons has reported that there are five infected inmates at a federal prison in Gilmer County, and one infected staff member at a federal prison in McDowell County.

The state’s American Civil Liberties Union chapter has pushed for releasing inmates who don’t pose immediate safety risks.

“Social distancing measures are impossible in our overcrowded jails and prisons,” ACLU-WV spokesman Billy Wolfe said. “We’ve seen these facilities become hot spots for infection in other states, and there is still time to prevent a similar crisis here.”

A correctional officer at Huttonsville tested positive over the weekend, according to the department. Justice said “these are believed not to be connected.”

DMAPS’ release said “that employee, who is quarantined at home and in good condition, had supervised three other inmates from a separate housing unit during his last shift there May 14 in the recreation yard. Those three inmates have since tested negative.”

Brian Abraham, Justice’s general counsel, said local health officials believe they have identified the person who was “the source that brought the spread into the facility.”

“These individuals were contained within a particular unit,” Abraham said. “Those units are segregated from others and don’t intermingle, so they think they have identified the location, they’ve identified the individuals. They are putting other protective measures in place, such as the inmates wearing protective gear.”

The infected inmate’s housing unit is now quarantined, DMAPS said. Justice said all inmates and staff “in the block that we found this positive” will be “immediately” tested.

DMAPS’ release said testing also will be made available to all Huttonsville employees, and Justice said, if that turns up more cases, all inmates there will be tested.

As of 2 p.m. Tuesday, only 135 tests had been done on inmates at the state’s adult and juvenile prisons and jails. Five of those tests are still pending results.

There were more than 4,000 people imprisoned in the jails alone as of early April, and another more than 200 in Bureau for Juvenile Services detention facilities, as of last week.

Justice attributed going so long without an infected prisoner to “blessings,” not sparse testing.

“You know this disease is with us, it’s everywhere,” he said. “And you know we have had wonderful, wonderful blessings that we have not had an issue in our jail system and everything. We knew it was probably coming, and when it came, we’re trying to run to the fire and make sure we put it out and put it out as quickly as possible.”

Wolfe, of the ACLU-WV, said, “we and our partners also continue to call for testing to be made available for everyone incarcerated or working in the system.”

Justice also announced Tuesday that, effective Thursday, tourists to West Virginia from areas with substantial COVID-19 community spread no longer will be required to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Also at the briefing, the governor announced West Virginia’s 68th COVID-19-related death: an 86-year-old Kanawha County woman.

WV parks officials to volunteers: Stop building trails, at least for a while

Just off the Johnson Hollow Trail in Kanawha State Forest, pieces of bright-orange surveyor’s flagging tape mark another trail that comes in from a different direction.

You won’t find it on the park’s official trail map.

Volunteers built that trail, and close to 20 miles worth of others, over the past several years. The work nearly doubled the park’s trail mileage. Parks officials appreciate the help, but they have a message: Please stop, at least for a while.

Chris Bartley, the forest’s superintendent, said he found out about all the new trails not long after he transferred in from Watoga State Park last summer.

“Someone said they saw a bunch of people working on a trail,” Bartley recalled. “I hadn’t heard about it, so I went to check things out.”

What he discovered surprised him. The volunteers said they’d been given permission to construct that trail, and others, by the previous superintendent. After some research, Bartley discovered an “off-the-official-map” trail network that rivaled the forest’s existing 24-mile network.

“It’s a little overwhelming, when you consider that we practically doubled what we had on the map,” Bartley said.

Kanawha State Forest isn’t the only park where ad-hoc trails have been built. At Blackwater Falls State Park, volunteers built a “flow trail,” complete with wooden bridges, ramps and jumps. Steve McDaniel, director of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, visited the park recently. He said what he saw frightened him.

“The ramps looked rickety and unsafe, and there were no signs to let people know how difficult the trail is,” he added. “People went onto state park property and cut trees, dug holes and built all that without letting anyone know. You just can’t do that.”

McDaniel said Blackwater and Kanawha are the only places within the state park system where unauthorized trails have popped up, at least so far.

“At many parks, we have volunteers who help with trail maintenance, but they work within an existing plan,” he said. “We’re happy to have people working with us, but we need to know what they’re doing.”

The park system’s acting chief, Brad Reed, said his agency is “open to new recreational opportunities.”

“Director McDaniel is a forward thinker who is always looking for avenues to create new recreation and revenue,” Reed said. “We aren’t a regulatory agency; we don’t want to say no. We have to have oversight, though.”

McDaniel said agency officials “want to embrace all this energy.”

“We want to get those people involved in planning this. The Legislature has allowed us to offer matching grants that range from $7,500 to $25,000,” he said. “If a volunteer group puts in, say, $10,000 worth of man hours on a trail, we will give them $10,000 for their materials and equipment.”

McDaniel said state parks and forests that have at least 15 miles of trails will qualify to have “trailmasters,” employees dedicated specifically to maintaining the trail network.

At Kanawha State Forest, where there now are 44 miles of trails, maintenance has become a very real issue.

“We’re faced with the task now of having to go in, name all these trails, mark them and blaze them so that people can enjoy them the way they’re meant to be enjoyed,” Bartley said. “We also have to get our trail map updated to include them.”

Having an accurate map, he added, is more important now than ever.

“It’s a safety issue. If, God forbid, someone gets lost or hurt on our trails, we need to know where to send searchers or paramedics to help them,” Bartley said.

Until all the ad-hoc trails are properly named, marked and on the map, Bartley said, no further trail building will occur.

“I’ve explained to the Kanawha State Forest Foundation Trails Committee that we need to take care of what we have first, before we can even consider any additional trails,” he continued. “Once we get to that point, if we feel there’s a need to add any more, any additions will need to come to me, and I will need to pass them along to my bosses for the necessary approvals.”

McDaniel said parks officials “don’t want to be killjoys.”

“We want to embrace all this [volunteer] energy, not eliminate it,” he said. “We just want to get people involved in the planning process, as well as in the trail-building process.”

Former U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins

WV Supreme Court candidate under fire for ad questioning experience of sitting justices

A West Virginia Supreme Court candidate is in hot water for a campaign ad claiming that three of five members of the current high court have little courtroom experience.

Kanawha Family Court Judge Jim Douglas, running for justice in Division 2, said he was contacted Friday by state Judicial Investigation Commission counsel Teresa Tarr regarding a television spot that aired on WSAZ-TV that said three unnamed members of the current court have never picked a jury, cross-examined a witness or argued a case before the high court on which they now serve.

The ad emphasized Douglas’ 44-year career as a trial lawyer and family court judge.

“She said, ‘You made a false statement,’” Douglas said of the conversation with Tarr. “I said, ‘Please tell me which one is false and I will apologize immediately.’”

He said Tarr didn’t respond but directed him to pull the ad — which already had completed its limited run — and to run a retraction or the JIC would have to file a complaint against him.

Douglas said Tarr’s call came shortly after he had an email exchange with Justice Evan Jenkins, which began with an email Jenkins sent at 10:41 p.m. Thursday, using his official court email address, and continued into Friday morning.

In the first email to Douglas, Jenkins stated: “Jim ... I saw your ad this evening on WSAZ where you make factual claims about the Justices’ experience. Please let me know who the three Justices are you reference. If you are including me, your claims are not true and I take great offense at your efforts to disparage the reputation of the Court.

“And if I am not included in the three you reference and you cannot prove three other Justices do not have the experience you claim, I insist the ad be taken down immediately and that you issue a public apology for your false, deceptive and misleading ad.”

Douglas said he had used Westlaw online research to search for any cases that either Jenkins or Chief Justice Tim Armstead had argued before the Supreme Court, noting, “It came up with the biggest goose-egg you ever saw for him and Armstead.”

The lack of courtroom experience for Jenkins and Armstead, who were better known for long legislative tenures than for their legal practices, was an issue when the two were appointed to the court by Gov. Jim Justice and ran for election to the court in 2018.

In 2018, Charleston lawyer Bill Schwartz unsuccessfully challenged Jenkins’ appointment to the court, contending that he was ineligible to serve since his law license had been placed in inactive status from December 2014 to August 2018.

At 1:45 a.m. Friday, Douglas responded to Jenkins: “For my edification, did you ever cross examine a principal witness in a trial, did you ever pick a jury as lead counsel in a trial, did you ever argue a case to the WV Supreme Court as first chair, did you ever present an indictment to a state Grand Jury? If you have done so, please advise. Incidentally, I have done all of the foregoing.”

At 7:17 a.m. Friday, Jenkins replied: “Jim, since you are now questioning me about my experience, I can only assume you’ve included me as one of the three. As I said before, if you are, the ad is false. How can I be more clear? In fact, my legal experience including the civil and criminal cases I’ve personally handled is a matter of public record in my application to the JVAC [Judicial Vacancy Advisory Commission]. You have a responsibility to make sure your statements are accurate and truthful. Again, please identify by name the three Justices you are referring to in your ad?”

At 8:18 a.m., Douglas responded with a lengthy email questioning Jenkins’ “unusual attempts as a sitting Justice to privately lecture me on obligations, to make demands of me, or otherwise to intimidate me ... .”

Douglas added, “Any public dispute about this race would not center on me, but the focus would ultimately be upon your alleged experience or inexperience (to which you seem strangely sensitive) versus my First Amendment rights.”

Later in the hour, Douglas emailed: “Evan: Did you ever argue a case as first chair to the very Supreme Court on which you now sit? If not, what is your complaint?”

In the final email of their exchange that morning, Jenkins wrote, “Jim, I can see you are unwilling to tell me who you are referring to in the ad. I have said now repeatedly that if you are including me, the ad is false. I will not engage in a back and forth. Evan.”

Douglas said the timing between his email exchange with Jenkins and the call from Tarr strongly suggests that she was contacted by the justice or by someone on his behalf.

Douglas, who noted that there is no incumbent justice on the ballot in Division 2, said he opted to run a retraction, although he stands by the basic premise of the ad: That the current court lacks legal experience and expertise, particularly in the area of family law.

“At least 90% or more, I’m apologizing for telling the truth,” he said.

Neither Jenkins nor Tarr responded to requests for comment Tuesday.

Mnuchin, Powell: Economy must restart soon

WASHINGTON — Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Tuesday defended the Trump administration’s economic response to the coronavirus pandemic, facing pointed questions from one Democratic senator who said workers’ lives are being put at risk.

During a Senate Banking Committee hearing, conducted by videoconference, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, pressed Mnuchin on the White House’s push to quickly reopen parts of the economy even as many health care advisers have urged more caution.

“How many workers should give their lives to increase our [gross domestic product] by half a percent?” Brown asked Mnuchin.

“No workers should give their lives to do that, Mr. Senator, and I think your characterization is unfair,” Mnuchin responded.

President Donald Trump has said in the past that it is possible the push to reopen parts of the economy quickly could lead to more deaths, but his advisers have said numerous precautions are being taken to prevent problems.

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell also testified at the hearing. He and Mnuchin were asked about whether the government is acting quickly enough to try to arrest the economic downturn. Powell also told lawmakers that more spending could help prevent the recession from deepening.

The hearing marked the first time two of the main architects of the government’s economic response testified together before a congressional panel, and it came as policymakers are increasingly divided about how to address the pandemic’s economic fallout. Powell has called for Congress to approve more programs to ensure economic growth, while Mnuchin said Tuesday that he is working to erect programs that were authorized two months ago.

Mnuchin also warned that there could be severe economic trauma if policymakers do not act swiftly to reopen businesses, reflecting the urgency that has increased at the White House in recent weeks.

“There is the risk of permanent damage,” Mnuchin said at the hearing.

He stressed the need for the economic reopening to be done safely and said the economy will continue to weaken, at least in the short term.

“I think the jobs numbers will be worse before they get better,” Mnuchin said.

A number of Democrats at the hearing attacked the White House’s response. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said Mnuchin should be more forthcoming about where all the stimulus money is being spent, telling him, “We need more transparency.” Mnuchin responded by saying there has been “unprecedented transparency,” but Tester said that was not the case.

Brown repeatedly asked Mnuchin and Powell whether it is “fair” that essential workers put their lives on the line at work while being among the lowest paid in the economy. Neither Mnuchin nor Powell would specifically say whether that is fair or not.

The very terms of the hearing came under dispute as Mnuchin said he had been prepared to testify in person. Brown devoted part of his opening statement to railing against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., for bringing the Senate back into session, which Brown said is putting Senate workers at risk.

The hearing was to focus on the nearly $3 trillion Congress has approved to respond to the coronavirus crisis, including a $500 billion fund managed by the Treasury and the Fed. Lawmakers of both parties pressed Mnuchin and Powell to move faster on hundreds of billions of dollars in lending to businesses, cities, states and others.

“The CARES Act is the biggest rescue package in the history of Congress, and we need to make sure the dollars and program quickly find their mark,” Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, said at the outset of the hearing.

In his own opening statement, Mnuchin touted his work with Congress “to get relief into the hands of hard-working Americans and businesses as quickly as possible. While these are unprecedented and difficult times, these programs are making a positive impact on people.”

Powell discussed the Fed’s role in backstopping hundreds of billions of dollars in loans for businesses shoring up other parts of the economy. A report by the Congressional Oversight Commission on Monday found that a small portion of a $500 billion Treasury fund created by the CARES Act has been committed.

Congress’ $2 trillion CARES Act, passed in late March, mandates quarterly testimony from Powell and Mnuchin on Capitol Hill.

Lawmakers from both parties have questioned why the Fed has yet to launch its Main Street Lending Facility, aimed at helping businesses that are too large to qualify for a separate small-business program. They also asked why the central bank recently altered the terms of that program to aid companies with up to 15,000 employees, a move some Democrats say mainly benefits struggling oil and gas firms.

Crapo questioned Mnuchin and Powell about a municipal lending fund and what types of cities could qualify for it. Congress allocated $150 billion for cities and states under the CARES Act, but many governors and Democrat lawmakers have been pushing for more assistance. The Treasury and the Fed set up a municipal lending facility within the $500 billion Treasury fund, but it has yet to send out any money.

Powell said the agency is looking at ways to make it work.

House Democrats last week passed a bill allocating another $3 trillion in coronavirus relief, but Senate Republicans and the White House rejected it. Senate Republicans and administration officials say they want to pause and see how the money already approved is working before agreeing to any more. Some have suggested that no more federal spending will be necessary at all, as the Trump administration makes optimistic predictions about economic growth.

Democrats have pointed to comments last week from Powell suggesting that spending more taxpayer money might be necessary and worthwhile.

Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., said Powell’s comments had been “mischaracterized” as calling on Congress to pass a new spending bill, saying the Federal Reserve had been more nuanced and had acknowledged the costs of new spending. Powell did not respond to that interpretation of his remarks.

“I think you could make a pretty strong case before we rush out and do another spending bill we let some of this stuff go to work,” Toomey said.

Before the hearing, Mnuchin, who has been the Trump administration’s point person in negotiating relief bills, met with McConnell, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Vice President Mike Pence to discuss the economic situation and potential next steps.

Trump plans to meet with Senate Republicans at their weekly policy lunch on Tuesday.