Sitting down to peruse the Ethic Commission’s lobbyist spending disclosures for the May-August spending period, I wasn’t expecting to find much.
Summer normally is the slowest period for lobbying activity, usually with a few better-financed lobbyists following legislators to conferences around the state and country to pick up their meal tabs or to host receptions.
Likewise during this period, influential groups and associations invite legislative leaders to speak at their conventions and meetings, providing them with meals, beverages and often, lodging, in return. And, of course, during election years, overall campaign contributions show up in the disclosures.
With the pandemic putting the kibosh on all in-person conventions and conferences, I expected to see only primary campaign contributions showing up on the disclosures. In other words, meager pickings for one “scanning and scanning” for column items regarding which legislators got wined and dined and by whom.
So imagine my surprise when I took a gander at the Ethics Commission’s summary for the reporting period, and the total spending was a whopping $222,504. By my count, that blows away the May-August spending record of $75,059 set in 2015, a year when lobbyists were particularly generous in making sure the new Republican majorities in the Legislature felt appreciated.
Turns out West Virginia Auto and Truck Dealers Association president Jared Wyrick accounted for $135,590 of that total, with $135,300 of that being campaign contributions.
Presuming he was reporting contributions by the association’s WVCAR political action committee and not his own personal expenditures, I went to the Secretary of State’s website to verify.
I first went through all the political action committees listed on the website. No WVCAR PAC. No West Virginia Auto and Truck Dealers Association.
Maybe, I thought, it’s under independent expenditure committees. Nope, nothing.
The last possible category would be electioneering communications committees. Nada.
Aha! Wyrick must not have filed a spending disclosure for the PAC with the Secretary of State’s Office. There’s my lede.
Checking with Wyrick, he said, no, “All our reports for our PAC have been filed timely with the Secretary of State.”
After inquiring with the office about where the report might be, I got a call from Missi Kinder, campaign finance specialist, who walked me through the process of finding it on the website, which turned out to be no simple feat.
Seems you have to use the search mechanism, and you have to enter, “West Virginia Auto and Truck Dealers,” not “WVCAR” or any variant thereof, to pull up the disclosure.
I admit I’m a tech luddite, but I think I probably know my way around financial disclosures better than the average Joe, and I have to say this is about as user-unfriendly an experience as I’ve had with a state agency website.
Auto dealers spending $135,000 in an election cycle is a substantial chunk of change — and may help explain why you can’t buy Telsas in West Virginia.
Voters shouldn’t need to have ESP or an IT degree to find data showing that a particular PAC is exerting significant influence in an election — and it wasn’t always this way.
Before the current administration “upgraded” the website, the Secretary of State’s campaign finance reporting site was very straightforward and easy to navigate. All PACs were listed onscreen, in alphabetical order.
One could argue that after Secretary of State Mac Warner did his purge of 16 staffers (15 Dems, one independent) as he took office, the office instantly lost more than 200 years of experience and institutional history, and that none of those purged employees were around to point out the new campaign finance site is dysfunctional.
(Have to say, I had forgotten that Ben Salango was one of the attorneys who were able to get $3.2 million in wrongful termination settlements for 14 of the purged workers.)
Of course, as a party, Republicans aren’t big on transparency, from the president who won’t release his tax returns on down.
(Full disclosure: Warner got a $2,800 maximum contribution from the auto and truck dealers.)
Tuesday’s gubernatorial debate provided us with what may have been one of the lazier attempts at opposition research, as Gov. Jim Justice tried to deflect criticism for being a tax scofflaw by claiming Salango had not paid property taxes for a period of time.
A check of online Kanawha County tax records (which, unlike the SoS campaign finance site, is easy to use) shows that for a 10-year period from 2004 to 2014, Salango did something many car owners do: Pay our personal property taxes when we renew our license plates, not when the taxes come due, and thus, we pay a interest penalty for the convenience of doing so.
(On my last car, which I kept for nearly 20 years, for the last few years, the late penalties far exceeded the taxes owed on the vehicle.)
Given that delinquent taxes owed by Justice companies in Raleigh County alone recently filled nearly four pages of Beckley Register-Herald classifieds, the attempt to paint Salango as a tax deadbeat seems particularly absurd.
Justice also claimed Salango owns a Porsche, presumably to portray Salango as a wealthy lawyer out of touch with average West Virginians — not the direction I would have advised the state’s wealthiest person to take.
Salango quickly responded that he doesn’t own a Porsche, which is true.
Tax records show that for two years, in 2010 and 2011, Salango (and wife Tara) paid taxes on a 2006 Porsche 911.
Ironically, Justice pointed out he recently traded in a Chevy Suburban SUV with 200,000-plus miles, apparently to portray himself as common folk. However, according to the Google machine, a non-stripped down Suburban runs anywhere from the high $50,000s to low $60,000s, out of the price range of most West Virginians — and about twice the cost of a 2006 Porsche.
Meanwhile, as is typical in these debates, the incumbent only needs to avoid making an outrageous misstatement or flub that gets replayed in the media, both traditional and social, to claim victory.
Salango didn’t hit a grand slam, but did deliver several water cooler conversation-worthy lines, including comparing the campaign to a job interview, and saying based on his work record, no business would hire Justice.
He also deflected Justice’s attempts to portray him as a liberal trial lawyer, noting that with Justice businesses having been sued more than 600 times, Justice has probably spent more time in courtrooms than he has.
Perhaps most significantly, Salango put a spotlight on Justice’s slow pace of getting $1.27 billion of federal CARES Act relief funds the state received in April out to struggling families and businesses, with the state still sitting on $983 million of that total, according to the state Auditor’s Office (which has a very user-friendly website, by the way).
“We need to get that money out,” Salango said Tuesday, putting Justice on a defensive that carried over into lengthy explanations of the how the money is to be meted out during COVID-19 briefings on Wednesday and Friday.
“There’s no hoarding. There’s no money being spent on pork or pet projects,” Justice insisted on Friday.
Bottom line, Justice has parked $300 million of CARES money in an unemployment trust fund to pay claims between now and Dec. 31.
Which is what legislative attorneys refer to as a policy question: Do you get that $300 million out now to help struggling families and small businesses around the state, or park it so you can say the state didn’t raise unemployment insurance taxes on your watch?
Finally, a bit of good news in a year that could use it: On Wednesday, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., welcomed Matt Crouch back for his first shift as station agent at the Charleston Amtrak station (or what’s left of it) in over two years.
In a stupendously inept move by the previous Amtrak president, CHW and a number of other Amtrak stations were de-staffed in 2018.
Manchin that year got a rider put into the federal transportation appropriations bill to restore those positions, but Amtrak lawyers double-crossed him, coming in at the last minute to change the rider to permit those stations to be staffed by part-time contract workers they called caretakers.
Caretakers basically opened and closed stations at designated hours and kept them clean, but otherwise did not perform the functions of station agents, such as selling tickets and checking baggage.
Being that Manchin is nothing if not persistent, and got the corrected rider in the FY 2019-20 appropriations bill. After some delay, Amtrak execs had the good sense to rehire Crouch, who not only is a longtime Amtrak employee, but a lifelong rail fan and railroading historian.
At the moment, Crouch’s station is not much, just half of one of those converted shipping container construction site offices.
The interior of the Charleston station has been gutted and is undergoing a complete renovation, while the station platform is being torn out and replaced with an elevated platform that will make boarding and detraining the Cardinal a bit easier.
Which is also good news, since presumably, Amtrak wouldn’t be doing all this construction if it didn’t intend to keep the Cardinal operating for the long-term.