No reporter likes to have to run a correction or a clarification, but when a mistake is made, journalistic integrity is paramount.
A few weeks back, as I continued to “scan, and scan, and scan” Gov. Jim Justice’s CARES Act $5,000 Small Business Grants — otherwise known as buying influence among state business owners on the taxpayers’ dime, now up to $21 million total by Justice’s count — I wrote that there must be some sort of process for screening the grant applications, since no tattoo parlors or strip clubs have received grants.
However, with the latest round of grant awards, I’m afraid I must stand corrected.
New grant recipients include High Street Tattoo in Morgantown (for a $2,000 grant), and a $5,000 grant to the VIP Gentlemen’s Club in Martinsburg, doing business as the Lust Gentlemen’s Club.
According to its Facebook page, the club — whose motto is, “We Put the ‘Wild’ in West Virginia” — will be reopening soon. (The anti-porn filter on my browser blocked me from looking at the club’s web page.)
The Lust club made statewide headlines in July 2019 when Stormy Daniels performed there. Having never set foot there, I would presume Lust must be top-shelf as gentlemen’s clubs go to have been able to book a performer of Daniels’ stature.
(While many of Justice’s grants have been held up in the auditor’s office for a variety of issues, the grant for the Lust club was submitted Monday and approved for payment Thursday.)
As an aside, it’s interesting how much politics has changed in the 30 years that I’ve been covering the statehouse. When I first got here, one of the big issues with conservative legislators was trying to stamp out pornography — with pornography broadly defined in their minds as any display of nudity or semi-nudity.
There were efforts to require warning stickers on videos lacking Motion Picture Association ratings, which included a large variety of foreign, independent cinema and direct-to-video movies.
That bill was defeated, in part, because legislators such as then-Sen. Charlotte Pritt pointed out the absurdity of requiring warning stickers on children’s videos. (A point used against her in her 1996 gubernatorial run with attack ads claiming she supported selling X-rated videos to kids.)
Another ongoing effort in those days was legislation to require performers in strip clubs to retain a designated amount of clothing during their performances.
In one of the great moments I witnessed at the statehouse, during a public hearing on the bill, a strip club performer testified that nude dancing provided her with sufficient income to put herself through college and care for her disabled mother.
Asked if the proposed restrictions would put her out of work, she said, yes, because people could stay home and see as much on “Baywatch” for free. After the hearing, the bill was sent to subcommittee, not to be heard from again.
(For younger readers, “Baywatch” was a TV series about lifeguards in Southern California, part of a genre known at the time as “Jiggle TV.”)
Despite conservative legislators’ ongoing efforts to legislate morality, the introduction and proliferation of the internet opened the floodgates.
While closing local strip clubs and neighborhood adult book stores and prohibiting the sale or rental of X-rated tapes in video stores seemed plausibly achievable, internet porn was simply a wildfire too massive, elusive and widespread for legislators to stomp out, and the idea of banning pornography, scourge of American society though it may be, simply faded away as a priority for conservative legislators.
And now, 30 years late, strip clubs evidently have become so mainstream that they qualify for taxpayer-funded Small Business Grants.
In another development last week, lobbyists — they like to call themselves governmental relations specialists — also have begun getting Small Business Grants.
Recipients includes Juliet Terry, who lobbies for the state Manufacturers Association, the state Kennel Owners Association and Mountain State Carbon/A.K. Steel, among others, with a $2,000 grant.
Receiving a $5,000 grant is Larry Puccio LLC, headed by the uber-lobbyist of the same name, who has a large clientele including Draft Kings, Fan Duel, First Energy, Frontier Communications, United Health System and Justice’s Greenbrier Hotel.
Besides lobbying for Justice, Puccio chaired his gubernatorial transition team in 2016, and gave a maximum $2,800 contribution to the Justice campaign last October, leading to his forced resignation from the state Democratic Executive Committee.
Also picking up a $5,000 grant is the Law Firm of John Leaberry in Fairlea.
For those too young to remember “Baywatch,” Leaberry was instrumental in taking down former Gov. Arch A. Moore Jr., wearing a wire in 1990 during a meeting where Moore directed him to lie to a federal grand jury about illegal cash contributions to Moore’s 1988 campaign, when Leaberry was campaign chairman.
Nevertheless, ratting out Moore allowed Leaberry, who was facing up to three years in prison for income tax fraud, to get off with a fine and three years’ probation. The state Bar also suspended his law license for five years.
Since 1996, Leaberry has been managing partner of the law firm that bears his name, although his primary residence is Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Meanwhile, a number of smaller (35 employees or less) newspapers and radio stations around the state have picked up grants, last week including a grant to the Ol’ Mountain Trader in Beckley.
For those of you too young to remember “Baywatch” or when Arch Moore went to prison, back before the internet, when people wanted to buy or sell things, they would place classified ads in the newspaper. In the Sunday paper, classified ads took up a whole section of the newspaper — two sections in bigger cities.
Most localities also had standalone publications full of classified ads, and while most of these publications, known as shoppers, have gone on to the great printing press in the sky, Ol’ Mountain Trader still persists.
You know that campaign ad where Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ben Salango talks about how he grew up in a trailer and how his parents worked hard to build a business? Well, Ol’ Mountain Trader is that business, and his mom, Debbie Salango, still owns the shopper.
Wonder if Justice signed off on a Small Business Grant to a business owned by Salango’s mom? Probably not. Justice removed longtime Racing Commission Chairman Jack Rossi from that position because Rossi happens to be Salango’s campaign treasurer.
Finally, I’ve written frequently about how after so many tweaks — nine by my count — and so much watering down, folks have lost confidence in the state COVID-19 risk assessment map, which as of Friday, ranks counties on either infection rates or positive test rates — whichever gives the county a better color.
While Justice frequently talks as if the map is wholly a West Virginia creation, of course, it originally was a cut-and-paste of the risk map developed by the Harvard Global Health Institute, a consortium of leading scientists, epidemiologists and public health experts from around the country.
I reached out to them, and evidently, the folks at Harvard Global are not amused by the tweaks, either.
“We need clear, objective data on the level of community-transmission of COVID-19,” Harvard Global’s Dr. Thomas Tsai said. “Policy decisions involve tradeoffs, and different jurisdictions may come to different conclusions about how to respond to a given risk-level, but it’s important to not change the risk-level to fit a response.”
Tsai, assistant professor of Health and Policy Management at the Harvard School of Public Health, and a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, has been serving as spokesman for Harvard Global, as his busy schedule permits.
Besides watering down the original risk assessment map, Tsai raised concerns that West Virginia applies its map essentially only to public schools, whereas Harvard Global intended for its risk management protocols to apply to all aspects of community life.
“It’s important to factor in community-level transmissions,” Tsai said. “Schools are part of the community, just as nursing homes and prisons are part of the surrounding community.”
He cited a recent outbreak in Maine traced to a wedding. Eight people have died. None attended the wedding.
That, he said, “speaks to how intricately linked all of us are to a community and suggests that a community-level outbreak can increase infections in the schools just as outbreaks in schools can increase infections in the community.
However, Tsai said, Harvard Global is reluctant to denounce West Virginia’s fiddling with the map, or call on the Justice administration to cease and desist.
“We are an academic research team based at a university, and our overall mission is to provide data and evidence to inform public health decisions and policies,” he said, adding, “Our role is to make these data available but ultimately policymakers are the end users.”