A top delegate in the West Virginia legislature has been hired to do public relations for a controversial manufacturing plant being built in his county.
Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, the majority whip, will be the public affairs manager for Rockwool, which is building a stone wool insulation plant in the Eastern Panhandle. The company announced his appointment in a news release Tuesday.
“Open, accessible, and respected as a West Virginia delegate, and committed to his community and the state. We couldn’t have asked for a more qualified candidate to join our team,” Trent Ogilvie, president of Rockwool North America, said in a prepared statement.
But critics said the move posed a major conflict of interest, particularly considering the controversial nature of the company, which is building a 460,000-square-foot coal- and gas-fired manufacturing plant permitted to emit 155,000 tons of air pollutants a year, including methanol and carbon monoxide.
“It is unusual that he would decide to take his position at the point when this project has been so high-profile and controversial,” said Julie Archer, project manager for the West Virginia Citizen Action Group, which advocates for tighter ethics standards in government.
Espinosa said he “became aware” that Rockwool was seeking someone to be a local spokesperson, and that the company asked him if he knew of anyone or had any ideas.
In Ogilvie’s statement, he said, “Paul stepped forward, expressing interest in the job.”
Espinosa said he did not send in application materials, like a resume or cover letter, but noted that he did have a background in public affairs. Michael Zarin, a spokesman for Rockwool, said the company considered “several other candidates” for the role.
“I concluded I might be able to play a productive role in helping Rockwool deliver on what I believe to be a sincere commitment and desire to be a good corporate citizen,” Espinosa said. Asked about his compensation, he said it was a “competitive salary commensurate with more than 30 years” of experience in the county.
His most recent financial disclosures list his business as CNB Bank, in Berkeley Springs.
“Why are they hiring him for that job? Is it access? It may not even be about getting particular laws passed or tax breaks passed in their favor, it’s about access,” said Viki Harrison, director of state operations for Common Cause, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.
“Today’s announcement of their intent to employ Delegate Paul Espinosa as a public relations manager is another example of their disregard for the will of the people, and their willingness to buy influence wherever possible,” said Shaun Amos, president of Jefferson County Vision, a nonprofit group opposed to the plant.
Since the plant was announced, it’s drawn criticism from residents who say state and local officials ushered the project in, hastily signing agreements, including a memorandum of understanding and PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) agreement.
Residents say they’re also worried the plant will disrupt the county’s tourism and agricultural base. Rockwool is being built across the street from North Jefferson Elementary School.
“They’re already perceived as having undue influence,” Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson, said of Rockwool. “This is just going to reinforce that.”
Harrison said that sometimes the appearance of a conflict of interest is most important to constituents.
“I always tell legislators it’s on you to go above and beyond to help restore faith. Our country and our voters have so little faith in their elected officials right now, and something like this, just the appearance adds fuel to that fire,” she said.
Espinosa can hold both jobs. Because West Virginia has a citizen Legislature (like 40 other states), many lawmakers keep their day jobs when they’re elected to public office.
“I don’t think Rockwool has sought or will seek legislation. I will comply with the rules of the House, just as my colleagues do,” Espinosa said by phone Tuesday.
In the House of Delegates, Rule 49 forces lawmakers to vote as long as four other delegates stand to benefit. Last year, an examination by the nonprofit newsroom ProPublica and the Charleston Gazette-Mail found the House speaker approved just 14 of 245 delegate recusal requests, a rejection rate of 94 percent, in the previous five years.
Asked if he saw the hire as a conflict of interest, Doyle said, “Of course. But in a part-time legislature, conflicts of interest are accepted.”