There are more than 100 people registered as lobbyists this session, but only one of them has an electronic access card to the Capitol building.
That lobbyist, Larry Puccio, represents The Greenbrier resort and Southern Coal Corp., both of which are owned by Gov. Jim Justice.
Kevin Foreman, director of Capitol Police, said Puccio has an electronic access card to the Capitol complex that was granted when he served as the leader of Justice’s transition team in 2016.
The card grants access to doors not open to the general public and can be used to avoid sometimes-lengthy security lines at the public entrances.
Foreman said Capitol Police issued the access card to Puccio for his role as a member of Justice’s transition team, not as a lobbyist. Though the card was granted on a temporary basis, Foreman said it is still active.
The Charleston Gazette-Mail filed a Freedom of Information Act request for Puccio’s access card application and relevant documentation. In response, Foreman said Puccio did not submit an application form for the card, nor was he the subject of a background check.
Foreman said within the Governor’s Office, one person is in charge of coordinating the disbursement of access cards to Justice employees, though he declined to identify that person. He said it was an “oversight” that Puccio’s card is still active.
When asked about his access card Friday, Puccio, who previously served as chairman of the state Democratic Party, said he only uses it for his ongoing work with Justice’s transition.
“I didn’t get that from being a lobbyist. I was the chairman of the transition team,” he said. “I was in a meeting with the governor today, on issues that we had worked on during the transition, getting things that would be done, different personnel issues and all that, so I continued to do that, which is normal for the chairman of a transition team.”
Though Justice has been serving for more than a year, Puccio said the work transitioning continues. He said after former-Gov. Joe Manchin took over, the transition process lasted more than two years.
Although he represents Justice’s companies and is the only lobbyist with an access card, Puccio denied any impropriety or appearance thereof.
“No, I really don’t; I have to be honest with you,” he said when asked if he thinks there’s an optics problem. “If you take the whole picture — if you just want to look at one piece, then what you’re saying makes sense, but not when you look at the whole picture.”
Puccio is the only lobbyist registered by the West Virginia Ethics Commission who has an access card, according to Foreman. However, Foreman declined to provide the full list of access card holders for inspection, citing security concerns.
The issue of lobbyists with special access to the building came to a head Thursday, driven in part by a floor speech from House Minority Whip Mike Caputo, D-Marion, in which he said a lobbyist — who he did not identify by name — was seen using an access card.
In a video provided to the newspaper, Chris Hamilton, a Justice ally and lobbyist who represents the Business Industry Council and the West Virginia Coal Association, can be seen entering the Capitol through an entrance requiring an access card.
Hamilton said Friday he is likely the person in the video and that he borrowed the card to circumvent the security line. Foreman said no access card is registered under Hamilton’s name.
Along with The Greenbrier, Puccio is registered to lobby on behalf of more than 15 other entities, as per the most recent lobbyist disclosures. Those companies include sports leagues like the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball; energy companies like FirstEnergy and Southern Coal Corp.; health care firms like KVC Health Systems and Pallotine Health Services, and others.
Though no other lobbyists have access cards at the moment, there’s an off-chance a bill could change that.
House Bill 2965 would allow any person to apply for an electronic access card to the Capitol complex, which would cost $250 for people who are not state employees.
Delegate Mick Bates, D-Raleigh, said the bill was designed to generate revenue for the Division of Protective Services to be able to open up new entrances. However, with teacher pay sucking up all the oxygen at the Capitol, he said movement on the bill is unlikely.