Charleston Gazette-Mail. November 3, 2023.
Editorial: Gov. Justice bears responsibility in DCR mess
Gov. Jim Justice showed a rarely exhibited decisiveness Wednesday when, during a virtual briefing, he said, if anyone deliberately destroyed state corrections and regional jail records, they should be fired and incarcerated.
Justice’s statement came after a federal magistrate concluded that there was no other explanation for missing electronic and hard copy records that would have been part of the discovery process in a civil lawsuit against the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the Southern Regional Jail, in Raleigh County, and several current and former state and county employees.
The lawsuit alleges inhumane conditions at the jail near Beckley, where 19 inmates have died between 2021 and 2023. Inmates have alleged that all manner of unsanitary conditions existed at the jail, including a lack of water, black mold, rat infestations and overcrowding.
It was interesting to see Justice speak with such conviction while sitting right next to his new Department of Homeland Security Secretary Mark Sorsaia, whom Justice prompted for further comment on the scandal. (The DCR is under the umbrella of Sorsaia’s agency, and Sorsaia was appointed to the post after the retirement of Jeff Sandy, who is a defendant in the lawsuit).
Sorsaia essentially was given the difficult task of agreeing with Justice while asserting that missing documents, in the form of DCR emails, were not deliberately scrubbed. Instead, Sorsaia argued, they were wiped because it was policy to delete the contents of former employees’ email accounts (even though attorneys for the plaintiffs had specifically asked for those records to be preserved more than a year before this issue came up).
More news around the situation seems to be surfacing almost by the hour, and the narrative as to what exactly happened, for now, is anything but a straight line.
However, it seems lost on Justice that all of this occurred on his watch and his administration bears sizable responsibility. And not just for this scandal, but the entire mess around the lack of action pertaining to the Southern Regional Jail.
Justice frequently has exhibited a failure to grasp the importance of holding the top elected office in West Virginia and not only gets defensive but sometimes mystified when it’s suggested he bears any responsibility for certain problems, let alone any obligation to address them. When it comes to this particular civil suit, the governor went out of his way to steer clear. He and his chief of staff, Brian Abraham, while not defendants in the case, successfully fought off subpoenas for depositions (supposedly in connection to the question of $28 million in federal COVID money budgeted for the DCR that was moved to a discretionary fund Justice controls).
Justice often is distracted and disinterested in affairs of state, and he’s never really understood that, yes, he’s the governor at a groundbreaking for a new business but also still the governor when inmates die at a regional jail or foster children in an overrun system are found locked in a shed.
It’s not his job to police every single incident or detail within every corner of state government, but it’s his responsibility to stay on the people he put in place to do so and at least have some inkling of what those people and agencies are doing every day.
The Herald-Dispatch. November 7, 2023.
Editorial: New effort could increase workforce for blue-collar jobs
The greater Tri-State area once was a manufacturing hub dominated by people who made tangible objects. From Portsmouth, Ohio to Point Pleasant, West Virginia, this area produced steel, petrochemicals, chrome- plated steel auto bumpers, rail cars, glass bottles, nickel alloys, plastic products and other items that provided good livings for thousands of families.
Hard times hit, many of those industries downsized or went away, and the nature of jobs changed. Now manufacturing and support industries are making a comeback, and employers are having trouble finding skilled workers.
Slowly, that’s changing.
Last week, the Marshall Advanced Manufacturing Center and its partner Mountwest Community & Technical College announced the Appalachian Regional Commission has awarded them and other agencies nearly $1 million to launch a new career skills training program to meet manufacturing industry needs.
Pending final approval by the Higher Learning Commission, the SMART program (Systems Maintenance, Automation and Robotics Technology) will begin in the fall of 2024. Students in the new program can earn industry skill sets, a certificate of applied science, an associate of applied science degree and micro credentials through the Marshall University Skills Exchange. Classes will be offered at MAMC, Mountwest and at Marshall’s Mid-Ohio Valley Center in Point Pleasant.
Funding for the $1.14 million workforce initiative includes $995,677 from the ARC, $120,000 from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation and $25,000 from the Just Transition Fund, officials said.
MAMC Director Derek Scarbro said program officials have worked closely with 26 area manufacturers to plan the training program. Industry spokesman say advanced, automated production systems require high-level skill sets to maintain and operate, Scarbro said. Companies have told organizers of the new program that they will need to fill about 1,000 positions over the next three years.
MAMC and Mountwest will collaboratively provide instruction and recruit students for the program.
“A strong manufacturing base requires a well-educated workforce,” Scarbro said. “We’re committed to responding quickly to meet the needs of our growing manufacturing base here in West Virginia. Toward that end, we expect to announce additional new workforce training partnerships and initiatives later this year.”
A strong regional economy requires a diversified base of extractive, manufacturing, service and financial services industries. That includes agriculture, construction, medicine, education and manufacturing. Having a skilled workforce and enough employers to make gaining those skills worthwhile can be a chicken-and-egg question. They must be addressed at the same time. Employers and unions are doing what they can to train the next generation of blue-collar workers, but there’s always more to be done. This latest effort by MAMC, Mountwest and others could be one part of that goal.
The Intelligencer. November 7, 2023.
Editorial: Cleaning Up a Mess in State Government
When a federal magistrate deems the behavior of state officials to have been so extraordinary as to top anything he has heard in more than 15 years as a state and federal judge, it is tempting to respond “Welcome to West Virginia.”
After all, the fraud, abuse and corruption that was supposed to have been rooted out in 2014 was legendary — we had a national reputation that still haunts us when those in Washington, D.C., are considering whether they should send us money.
But what U.S. Magistrate Judge Omar J. Aboulhosn learned in testimony regarding a lawsuit against the state Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation and multiple county commissions in the Southern Region made him declare he had never encountered such a situation. In fact, “The testimony … stands out as some of the most remarkable testimony that the undersigned has heard,” Aboulhosn wrote. “… The failure to preserve the evidence that was destroyed in this case was intentionally done and not simply an oversight by the witnesses. The court does not make that statement flippantly but after much thought and reflection of the disturbing testimony that took place that day.”
While it appears the mess was already being made when Corrections Commissioner Brad Douglas took over, he is shouldering much of the blame — and consequences. Aboulhosn took the unusual step of proposing that U.S. District Judge Frank W. Volk confirm his finding and recommended that Volk grant the plaintiff’s request for default judgment against the Division of Corrections.
This isn’t the transparent, accountable and responsible government we were all promised.
And while elected officials can (and should) point the finger at King Bureaucracy, there is fault to go around.
Now, as we learn our state officials are still behaving in a way embarrassing enough to shock a federal judge, the people we elected to represent us in Charleston must know — they are running out of time to get that house in order.