CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Delegate Kayla Kessinger, R-Fayette and member of the Joint Legislative Committee on Flooding, today blasted the state Department of Commerce for failing to have officials present at legislative hearings to answer questions about the state’s abject failure in properly providing relief following the 2016 floods.
“Twice this week we have had hearings to discuss the inappropriate and likely illegal allocation by the Department of Commerce of tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer funds related to flood relief programs that have to date failed to adequately benefit those directly affected by the floods, and twice this week Commerce Department officials have failed to show at these hearings,” Delegate Kessinger said.
“It is an absolute outrage that while residents in my district and in areas around the state are still living out of campers and using the restroom in buckets, that bureaucrats in Charleston can’t bother to walk across the Capitol complex to tell these people’s elected representatives why they aren’t getting the help they need,” Delegate Kessinger said.
On Sunday and Tuesday, the Legislature’s Post Audits Division presented reports that found the state Development Office, which is under the Department of Commerce, illegally entered into six contracts totaling $18 million to Horne LLP, which had been selected to manage the state’s disaster recovery programs. Auditors also said the Development Office separately entered into seven construction contracts totaling $71 million in violation of state and federal laws.
Auditors also said a review of invoices found that, as of June 1, it did not appear that anyone had received full assistance for new homes under the RISE West Virginia flood recovery program.
Despite the serious allegations contained in this audit, no officials from the Development Office or Department of Commerce appeared before legislative committees to respond to these allegations. Two Development Office employees – Mary Jo Thompson and Russell Tarry – had told Flooding Committee staff they would appear at Tuesday’s meeting. But as the meeting began, the committee was informed these employees had resigned as of 5 p.m. last Friday.
“The results of this audit are appalling, and sadly, I know our continuing investigation is going to reveal even more malfeasance in the coming weeks,” Delegate Kessinger said. “Lawmakers and the public deserve to know how and why this despicable situation occurred and what officials are going to do to fix it and prevent it from ever happening again. But that cannot happen so long as people from the Commerce Department keep refusing to show up for our hearings.”
Major General James Hoyer, the Adjutant General of the West Virginia National Guard who Gov. Jim Justice has tasked to fix the RISE West Virginia mess, did appear before the Flooding Committee to discuss his efforts to reform the program since taking its reins earlier this month.
“I have the utmost respect for General Hoyer and our men and women in the National Guard, and have full confidence they will get flood relief back on track. I thank him for appearing before us today,” Delegate Kessinger said. “However, we need to find out what went wrong in the first place and how to keep it from happening again. And that cannot happen until representatives from the Department of Commerce start showing up to tell us who approved these actions, who knew about them, how these decisions were made and why it has taken so long to get to this point.”
The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Government and Finance does have the power to issue subpoenas to gather evidence and request people appear before committees. Delegate Kessinger said the Flooding Committee will be working with the Joint Committee on Government and Finance to issue subpoenas going forward.
“The people deserve answers, and our constituents deserve the relief they’ve been promised for nearly two years now,” Delegate Kessinger said. “I think I can speak on behalf of all members of our committee when I say we will not relent until we give the people the answers and assistance they deserve.”