Gov. Jim Justice’s chief of staff on Monday said neither he nor the governor made threats toward state lawmakers in the days leading up to last weekend’s election of a new chairman of the West Virginia Republican Executive Committee.
“There was no involvement at the executive committee meeting,” Brian Abraham said. “I wasn’t there. The governor wasn’t there. I didn’t call anybody. The governor didn’t call anybody to try to do anything on the day of the meeting.”
Committee members elected Raleigh County Republican Executive Committee Chairman Mark Harris over former party chairman Conrad Lucas. The members voted at least twice on the matter during the 4-hour meeting, with Harris coming out ahead by three votes or fewer both times.
Following the meeting, rumors spread that Justice and Abraham had threatened to stall or veto bills pending in the Legislature if members didn’t support Harris.
“We don’t threaten anybody in the Governor’s Office,” Abraham said. “If you do that, you usually don’t get your way, and the other person gets mad.”
Delegate Roger Conley, R-Wood, described Saturday’s executive committee meeting in Charleston as “more contentious” than usual. Conley, who also serves as chairman of the Wood County Republican Executive Committee, was the only state lawmaker who returned the Gazette-Mail’s calls to talk about the meeting Monday.
The Gazette-Mail reached out to six lawmakers who are listed as members of the executive committee on the committee’s website. Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, and the Berkeley County Republican Executive Committee chairman, responded to an interview request, but declined to talk about the meeting.
Conley, in his first term in the Legislature, has participated in half-a-dozen state executive committee meetings. He said he didn’t witness or otherwise hear anything beyond the usual jockeying for position from people supporting Harris and Lucas.
Conley said he had heard the rumors that Abraham or Justice might have threatened to veto bills of particular interest to certain GOP lawmakers or made other promises in exchange for supporting Harris, but he didn’t see any evidence of that during the meeting.
“[Saturday] was a little more contentious than usual,” Conley said. “At the end of the day, I’m absolutely convinced the party will band together and join together. It’s the United States of America. Everybody’s got an opinion.”
Harris is the former chief of staff at the Veterans’ Affairs Medical Center in Beckley. He was dismissed from his job in 2019 after former doctor Jonathan Yates was accused, and later convicted in federal court, of sexually abusing veterans who sought care at the facility.
In January, a federal judge sentenced Yates to 25 years in federal prison.
Following his election as state GOP chairman, Harris briefly addressed the sexual abuse at the medical center before saying his focus was on his political party.
“A person who worked for me engaged in serious misconduct and was removed,” Harris said, according to a report from The Wheeling Intelligencer. “Shortly thereafter, I was replaced as chief of staff and, currently, I am retired. However, this election is not about me. It’s also not about you ... it’s about us. It’s about the Republican Party of West Virginia.”