Amid several emails wondering why a $150 million flood recovery program wasn’t getting money to the people it was supposed to help, one emergency official was told that Gov. Jim Justice had frozen the program because of the legislative session — an explanation the governor’s spokesman vigorously disputes.
About two months before reports that Justice had placed a freeze on the RISE West Virginia program because of a mishandled consulting contract, Russell Tarry, then deputy director of the state Development Office, wrote, “Our work has been put on pause by the Governor’s Office, for their review, due to the end of the Legislative Session.”
Butch Antolini, a Justice spokesman, said the response was wholly inaccurate. “The end of the legislative session had nothing to do with it,” he said.
An attorney for Justice said last week that the administration put RISE on hold over purchasing issues with a $17 million consulting contract between the state and Horne LLP, a Mississippi-based firm that assists states responding to natural disasters.
Spokesmen from the state Department of Commerce, which oversees the Development Office, did not respond to repeated interview requests and inquiries for this report.
The inter-executive branch discord comes amid increasing public scrutiny and pending legislative and legal investigations into RISE, which has only spent about $1.14 million of the $150 million at its disposal, as of March 31, almost two years after the deadly June 2016 flood.
Tarry’s email was to Paula Brown, Greenbrier County’s deputy director of homeland security and emergency management.
In a later email, Brown’s assessment of the RISE WV program was blunt.
“Total program management failure,” she said in a May 9 email to Tarry and other officials at the Development Office.
A few days earlier, Brown wrote to Tyler Aliff, a staffer at the Development Office. She had received a call from a RISE applicant who heard from a case supervisor that the RISE’s environmental crews had been fired, the program was hiring new crews, and 205 cases had to be completely redone.
When she called a RISE case management supervisor to confirm, she said she didn’t get a final answer. She hoped Aliff would answer her questions if RISE would not.
“Construction was supposed to have started last October 2017, yet no work has been done and the rumors across the state complicated by the total shutdown of communications from RISE/WV Development Office during this pause is leading to catastrophic failure of the program,” she continued in her May 9 email.
A communications breakdown became something of a recurring theme in the emails reviewed by the Gazette-Mail, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, and multiple interviews.
The emails show it was not just those coordinating recovery efforts like Brown who couldn’t figure out where RISE’s oodles of cash were going, but those who were promised relief, as well.
“[A victim] called regarding her rental property and her RISE application,” reads an April 2 email from a Justice staffer detailing another call. “She claims she has been given no proposed timeline and that ‘no one is telling her what’s happening.’ ”
In Aliff’s report of his correspondence with Brown, he referred to her as “slightly hostile” and said she offered “less than accurate information.” He said they discussed Brown’s concerns regarding a lack of relief and correspondence with RISE clients.
“I tirelessly expressed this operation was on an administrative pause and Ms. Brown did not like that response,” he said. “I expressed to ms. Brown that due to the pause, the entire operation is at a halt.”
The emails show at least 14 people, directly or indirectly, contacted Justice’s office regarding problems with RISE.
One of those indirect responses came from the offices of Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.
Her state director, Mary Elisabeth Eckerson, relayed concerns that were received from her office onto the governor. The subject line: “Constituent Contact regarding RISE.”
The emailed RISE inquires obtained by the Gazette-Mail date back to early November, when one woman’s request for assistance through RISE was declined, with no reason provided.
In a subsequent email, Trey Breckenridge, a senior manager at Horne, explained to state officials that a software error caused the letter to omit information regarding specific reasoning for the denial, and that the firm will be reaching out.
“Regarding her letter, it should have included the reason and we apologize about that,” he said. “We have corrected the glitch that caused that.”
Another RISE client contacted Justice’s office on Nov. 2, worried about the winter cold given RISE’s inactivity months before Justice put the program on hold.
“The Office of Governor Jim Justice received a phone call today from [a flood victim] today regarding his concern with not having any correspondence with RISE West Virginia regarding when the work on his home will begin, after finding out he had been approved,” reads an email from a Justice staffer detailing the contact.
“He claims he has been waiting for ‘two months’ and is afraid winter is going to come and he will have no preparations done to his home, due to being told by RISE West Virginia not to do any work to his home while awaiting services from them.”
According to Justice spokesmen, when the administration began looking into the Horne contract, it brought on the law firm of Carey Scott Douglas and Kessler to investigate, for a total cost of just below $21,000.
Billing documents obtained through a public records request identify the firm as “Special General Counsel — Internal Investigation” at a rate of up to $350 per hour for senior attorneys.
The documents show the firm corresponded with Justice general counsel Brian Abraham and Bray Cary, an EQT board member who works in the Governor’s Office, regularly. Although the documents are redacted to omit who the lawyers met with outside the Governor’s Office, they show some of the scope of the probe.
Some points of research by the firm include the West Virginia Ethics Act and some of the opinions published by the Ethics Commission; the “Tri-State Shale Agreement;” “various emails from reporter regarding potential conflict;” and the “purpose of flights.”
Antolini said Wednesday he was not aware of any intersection between the attorneys’ investigation and the Ethics Act, the Tri-State Shale Agreement, or the identity of the mentioned reporter.
The firm provided its last billable service Feb. 28.
In a news release Wednesday, Justice said that, since the RISE program resumed operations last week, six families were given keys to their new homes in Clay, Fayette, Greenbrier and Nicholas counties.