Moments after Sen. Joe Manchin announced that he would not run for governor, a caller wanted to speculate as to whether Manchin’s absence from the race would open the floodgates more for Republican or Democratic candidates, or for both parties.
With the prohibitive favorite sitting out the race, and with a governor whose approval numbers are barely above water, many will flirt with the temptation to jump into the fray and join several already declared candidates.
Among Republicans, being the opportunist he is, one can’t exclude Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. U.S. Rep. David McKinley’s name has come up, and he has an additional incentive: with the state redistricting down to two congressional seats for 2022, regardless of whether we go to east-west districts or north-south districts, McKinley is likely to end up facing another incumbent.
Secretary of State Mac Warner has gubernatorial aspirations, but also 3.4 million reasons why he’s not a viable candidate for that office in 2020 — and may well face a battle royal just to stay where he is, with a possible challenge from former Secretary of State Natalie Tennant.
Auditor J.B. McCuskey has quietly done an effective job in that office, but perhaps too quietly to generate much buzz statewide.
That all caused many to take note of the public service advertisements that U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart started airing in heavy rotation on local radio stations last week — seemingly immediately after Manchin’s announcement.
The ads, focusing on his efforts to fight drug crime, and encouraging addicts to seek treatment options, are the first Stuart has aired since becoming a U.S. attorney in 2018.
Stuart said he anticipated some criticism.
“You’re going to have folks who are cynical: Gosh, what’s Stuart trying to do here?” he said during a phone interview while changing planes at Dulles Airport. “I would urge folks to listen to the message.”
Stuart said the Justice Department gives him a budget of about $125,000 a year to air PSAs, but this is the first time in 21 months on the job that he has done so.
He said he didn’t have cost figures for the ad with him, but said it amounts to a fraction of his total ad budget. He said production costs were effectively zero, saying he wrote the copy himself and recorded it in one take at a local radio station.
The only expense is buying airtime on stations in the region, which by law, has to be at the lowest rates offered by each station.
Stuart said he believes the state has started a recovery from the nadir of the opioid epidemic, and wanted the ad to symbolize a change in focus from law enforcement efforts to treatment and recovery.
“If it encourages one person to get into recovery, then the ads are worth every penny,” he said.
Gov. Jim Justice’s ethical entanglements got more tangled last week, when two members of the Greenbrier Valley Airport Authority with ties to Justice’s Greenbrier resort sought direction from the Ethics Commission as to whether they could vote on a proposal to create an airport Convention and Visitors Bureau — something Justice has made clear he adamantly opposes.
The impetus for creation of the airport CVB is to get the Greenbrier County Commission to raise the county hotel occupancy tax from 3 percent to 6 percent (the maximum permitted by state law), with the new CVB using part of its share of the revenue to fund minimum revenue guarantees to lure additional commercial air service to the airport.
(Like many small airports, Greenbrier Valley has a long history of airlines bringing service, and then pulling out for lack of profitability.)
Justice, who has refused to put The Greenbrier into a blind trust, has argued the higher occupancy tax would be a major hit for the resort. He told reporters in April, “An additional bed tax is layering something on The Greenbrier that I don’t know if The Greenbrier can withstand.”
(Never mind that the hotel charges guests a 6.5 percent Historic Preservation Fund fee, and a $39 daily resort fee on top of the published room rate, and also charges $145 for falconry lessons, $115 for horseback riding, and $59 for a carriage ride, among various activity fees.)
Despite seemingly clear conflicts of interest (one authority member is a vice president at The Greenbrier, the other’s husband works there and she has reportedly said she would never vote for anything that might affect his employment), the Ethics Commission, without discussion, approved advisory opinions indicating that both could vote on a motion to create the CVB since The Greenbrier’s potential financial interest in the vote is “too speculative” to warrant recusal.
So Big Jim presumably has two of the three votes he needs to put the kibosh on the higher occupancy taxes that he adamantly opposes, even though The Greenbrier would likely be a prime beneficiary of improved air service at the airport.
Interestingly, in recent months, a pro-CVB member was removed from the authority and replaced, and the pro-CVB airport manager was abruptly fired without explanation in June.
Perhaps not coincidently, the pro-CVB ex-authority member had objected last fall when Greg Furlong, vice president for sales and event services at The Greenbrier, was appointed as an authority member.
The Ethics Commission meeting caught the attention of Woody Thrasher, Justice’s ex-Commerce Secretary who is challenging him in the 2020 Republican gubernatorial primary.
Thrasher issued this statement in response to the commission’s action:
“Obviously, this governor is still calling the shots at the businesses he refuses to put in a blind trust. It’s evident in where he spends his time, which is not traveling the state to get ahead of our issues, as he wants us to believe, and it’s certainly not at the governor’s mansion. He’s more worried about propping up his businesses than preserving our existing businesses or recruiting new ones.
“We should revisit and strengthen the current ethics regulations to help our Ethics Commission protect those of us who pay our taxes from his constant conflicts of interest and self-dealing fleecing of our state.”
As noted, the advisory opinions were approved without a peep of discussion from commissioners, a majority of whom participated via conference call.
I found myself wishing that Betty Ireland — a frequent and outspoken critic of Justice’s failure to put The Greenbrier into a blind trust — were still on the commission.
(At one point in 2017, as the umpteenth agency came before the commission to get clearance to attend events at the resort, Ireland said, “Putting The Greenbrier hotel into a blind trust needs to happen, and it needs to have happened yesterday, so these types of issues do not continue to crop up.”)
Of course, Ireland is also a cautionary tale about the political realities that prevent the Ethics Commission from exerting its full authority on governors and legislators. When her term on commission expired in December 2018, Justice did not reappoint her.
Finally, regarding Sen. Mike Maroney’s arrest for soliciting prostitution, I was reminded that technically, the Senate was (and still is) in session when the love doc turned himself into authorities in Glen Dale.
By law, any time the Legislature is called into session, the Senate must act on confirmations of all gubernatorial appointees made since the last time the Legislature met. For whatever reason, the Senate has put off confirmations from the special session that last met in July until legislators return to Charleston for interim meetings on Sept. 23. One theory is that the delay was to give the Justice administration time to figure out how to keep Jimmy Wriston at his $100,000-plus salary before confirming him to the then-pending appointment as Highways commissioner, an office whose salary is set by statute at $92,500.
(Justice resolved the matter the Justice way, by appointing Byrd White to serve both as Transportation Secretary and Highways commissioner, even though he doesn’t meet qualifications for the latter, and by making Wriston deputy secretary and deputy commissioner, but with all the powers and responsibilities of commissioner.)
Since the Senate technically was still in session, Maroney could have invoked Article 6-17 of the West Virginia Constitution, which says legislators are privileged from arrest during legislative sessions, exceptions being made for felony charges and acts of treason.
While that would not have made the criminal complaint go away, that could have postponed Maroney’s arrest until Oct. 3. (Over the years, legislators have used legislative immunity to postpone court hearings, and on occasion, have tried to use it to get out of traffic citations.)
However, I don’t get the impression that Maroney is a constitutional scholar, and given the remarkably poor judgment he showed regarding the activities of which he is accused, it’s not surprising he did not have the presence of mind to invoke his constitutional rights as a legislator.