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During the height of the pandemic, millions of dollars in federal stimulus money poured into state coffers, and millions poured out in the form of no-bid contracts.

According to the Auditor’s Office, the state has spent $51.33 million to date on COVID-19 testing kits and personal protective equipment purchases alone.

While the nature of the public health crisis demanded the state move and move quickly, we can presume at least some percentage of those millions of dollars were misspent, overpaid or possibly fraudulent.

Last year, the Gazette-Mail’s Joe Severino did some excellent reporting, uncovering that in the state’s $1.2 million purchase of 200,000 N95 respirators, at least a fourth of the masks were counterfeit.

I reported last week on an $8 million-plus no-bid contract for COVID test kits awarded to a start-up company headed by Delegate Josh Maynard, R-Lincoln, who before becoming a medical testing company CEO listed his employment history as unemployed legislator and part-time substitute schoolteacher.

(According to the Secretary of State’s Office, Maynard’s business partners include Oley Burgess III of Ashland, Ky., whose multiple holdings include WeCare Medical, a durable medical goods provider with a dozen locations in Kentucky and West Virginia.)

As I stated somewhat satirically last week, it might well be that Delegate Maynard is a true Horatio Alger success story. Or it might be he helped a company land a big no-bid state contract.

If your humble hometown newspaper reporters can uncover questionable state COVID-19 contracts in their spare time, odds are others are out there. Now that the crisis has passed, it would only seem prudent to go back and audit those no-bid contracts to determine whether there were improprieties.

I made some inquiries about that possibility and, like Joe Rossi on “Lou Grant,” I got the runaround for two hours.

State Auditor J.B. McCuskey told me his office lacks the authority to conduct such audits, advising, “We can provide you documentation for any purchase, but the responsibility for forensic auditing of state funds falls on the Legislature, via the legislative auditor.”

So, I put the question to Legislative Auditor Aaron Allred, who advised, “We look at these types of issues whenever we audit state agencies in compliance with the GAO’s issued Government Auditing Standards. However, if your question is are we presently conducting a single audit of only pandemic-related purchases across all state agencies simultaneously, the answer is not yet. I would also point out that under a state of emergency many state purchasing rules are waived.”

Allred does a great job, and is a stand-up guy, but I can’t see the current legislative leadership authorizing audits of companies owned by legislators. But somebody should.

•••

Contrary to popular belief, I haven’t covered the state Lottery since its inception, although I do remember those heady days in January 1986, when the Lottery offered its first scratch-off tickets. Every afternoon, someone would volunteer to go buy tickets, and the whole newsroom would take a Lottery ticket scratch-off break.

I have covered the Lottery for many, many years, and with the brief exception of the Butch Bryan era, the integrity of Lottery administrators has been unquestioned.

Directors John Musgrave and John Myers are probably two of the most honest, ethical state officials I’ve covered in my 30-some years at the Statehouse.

I have no doubts that the process the Lottery has set up to draw winners for Gov. Jim Justice’s self-aggrandizing vaccination incentive sweepstakes is beyond reproach.

Naturally, Justice has managed to destroy all credibility for the process by inserting himself into the final step, all just so he can turn the awarding of prizes into an endless series of self-aggrandizing photo opportunities.

Once the Lottery staff have conducted the weekly drawings (and I wrote last week about the intricate, time-consuming and tedious process to assure the legitimacy of those selections), Justice has insisted the winning names and contact information be forwarded to his office so his staff can arrange for the winners to come to Charleston for awarding ceremonies (or so Justice can go glad-handing around the state to present the prizes, as he did Wednesday).

The 48-hour-plus lag time between the time the winners (and alternates) are drawn by Lottery staff and the time Justice actually announces or awards the winners has shredded any credibility the process might have and caused many West Virginians to question whether the sweepstakes are legit — not surprising given Justice’s shaky familiarity with ethics.

Does anyone doubt that if Justice saw a name on the winner’s list that he didn’t care for (mine, for example), he would direct an underling to notify the Lottery the winner could not be reached and to provide the name and contact info for the first alternate.

(For each prize, the Lottery draws a winner and five alternates, except for 10 alternates for the weekly drawing for 25 State Parks getaway packages.)

Justice is handing more than $10 million in taxpayer-funded prizes for a sweepstakes intended to spur scores of the vaccine hesitant to get their shots. That effort has failed miserably. Daily state vaccination rates have plummeted to microscopic levels since the prize incentives were announced. Public confidence in the sweepstakes process should be paramount.

Justice could have done the right thing and put the sweepstakes entirely under control of the state Lottery, in which case there would have been no questions about its credibility.

He is the Charlie Brown of state politics: Everything he touches gets ruined.

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Another peculiarity about the vaccination incentive sweepstakes: I generally pride myself on being able to use the Auditor’s Office on-line tools (Vista and, to a lesser extent, wvOasis) to track down any and all state purchases.

However, hard as I try, I can’t find any purchase record for the 14 custom pickup trucks or 70 custom firearms that Justice is giving away.

(Obviously, a nice little chunk of business for whichever dealership or firearms dealer lands those contracts.)

I requested a list of vendors and purchase prices for the items from the governor’s office, and, of course, got no response. (Never in the history of governmental affairs has a communications office been paid so much to do so little.)

So last week I filed a Freedom of Information Act request for that information and will keep you apprised.

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Speaking of Justice, his dismantling of West Virginia Public Broadcasting from within continues as he stacks the Educational Broadcasting Authority with appointees who, as Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin aptly described them, aren’t champions of Public Broadcasting.

Justice’s latest appointee is Stephen Taylor Hood of Barboursville, who is an attorney and accountant for Generations Physical Therapy.

Yes, the same Generations Physical Therapy owned by Senate Finance Chairman Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, the Legislature’s Maj. Frank Burns doppelganger.

Tarr spent most of the 2021 session haranguing the West Virginia Broadcasters Association for having the audacity to run ads pointing out his advocacy for what would have been the largest tax hike in state history.

Tarr also believes Public Broadcasting is a diabolical left-wing plot to slant news coverage and indoctrinate children.

Tarr said as much during Senate confirmations hearings for two of Justice’s most recent authority appointees, a top state GOP operative who wishes he had coined the phrase “fake news” and a corporate lawyer and lobbyist who served on the board of directors of an organization that advocates for defunding Public Broadcasting, stating: “Most of their reporting is quite left-wing … I sometimes worry if that left-wing ideology bleeds over into their educational programming.”

I don’t know Hood from Adam, but the potential that his boss’ biases and prejudices will influence his decision-making on the authority is troubling.

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Finally, as President Joe Biden has proclaimed, today is the day we declare our independence from COVID-19 — thanks largely to the Biden administration’s extraordinary efforts in the nationwide rollout of vaccine doses.

People are traveling, families are holding reunions and ballparks, arenas and concert halls are again hosting capacity crowds.

There is, however, one place that is still held in the clutches of the COVID-19 virus, where it is still too dangerous to even consider the possibility of reopening.

That place is the governor’s reception room, where Justice continues to hunker down behind locked doors to conduct his twice-weekly COVID-19 briefings via livestream.

Of course, it’s not the fear of contracting the virus that keeps Justice in his bunker. It’s his fear of getting asked a tough question or, gasp, a follow-up question — occupational hazards he can evade by using the electronic briefing format.

It is conspicuous that, in Justice’s last three briefings, the Gazette-Mail reporter has been the only media participant in the queue not called on for a question. The last time I got a question, June 22, I asked Justice whether he was considering pulling the plug on his vaccination sweepstakes, since it has failed to increase state vaccination rates.

Be brave, Big Jim, summon up that last ounce of courage that must reside somewhere in that formidable frame. Open those reception room doors and let the media in. Time to go face-to-face with the Fourth Estate again.

Have a great Fourth of July, everyone.

Reach Phil Kabler at

philk@hdmediallc.com, 304-348-1220 or follow

@PhilKabler on Twitter.

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