Attorney defends nonprofit’s health grant distribution
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- An attorney for West Virginia Local Health Inc. believes the group's board members voting on methodology for grant distribution does not constitute an unlawful conflict of interest, even though the members represent health departments eligible for the funding.
Taunja Willis-Miller, an attorney with Jackson Kelly, issued the legal opinion to Shelly Duncan, executive director of West Virginia Association of Local Health Departments and a representative of West Virginia Local Health Inc.
"Because of the representative nature of the Board membership, there may always be some perception of conflict," Willis-Miller wrote. "However, one must assume that all board members recognize the representative nature of other board members, i.e., there is full disclosure of those interests.
"Moreover, the Board members are all employees and representatives of public entities; consequently, they should not be deriving private, personal gain from their actions," she continued.
At an April 23 health board meeting, Dr. Rahul Gupta, executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, argued that West Virginia Local Health Inc. board members voting for the distribution of funds could constitute a conflict of interest or a perception of one because those board members represent local health departments which are eligible for grant funding.
The Kanawha-Charleston Health Department has since dropped its membership with the state Association of Local Health Departments over concerns about the way Local Health Inc. intended to distribute grant funds.
According to the legal opinion, dated April 16, Willis-Miller does not believe board members voting on the methodology for grant distribution is an illegal conflict of interest.
"We do not think a legally impermissible conflict of interest would exist," Willis-Miller wrote in part.
Reached Wednesday afternoon, Gupta declined to comment, calling it a legal matter that is under review by the department's attorney.
Bill Kearns, president of Local Health Inc., said the legal opinion reinforces his view that the nonprofit is "on solid ground when it comes to funding distribution."
Kearns added that he believes the state Ethics Commission will agree.
Gupta and the Kanawha-Charleston Health Board have requested an opinion from the Ethics Commission in part about whether board members voting for grant distribution constitutes a conflict of interest.
The advisory opinion from the ethics commission is expected later this month.
The Local Health Inc. legal opinion addresses only one of the issues Gupta has raised about the group.
He has also questioned whether the group has the authority to oversee federal grant funding. The state Department of Health and Human Resources has delegated responsibility for federal grant distribution to Local Health Inc. Gupta has argued that in the past, Local Health Inc. has distributed money based on the direction of DHHR and it only recently took on the role of overseeing federal grants.
A May legal opinion from Health Department attorney Karen Tracy McElhinny said it may not have been legal for the state Department of Health and Human Resources to delegate the grant distribution to Local Health Inc. The opinion also said it may not have been legal for DHHR to award the grant money to Local Health Inc. for distribution without first receiving bids. McElhinny also wrote it might have been illegal for Local Health Inc. to award bids with grant funding without accepting bids.
Local Health Inc. project manager Shelly Duncan told the Kanawha-Charleston Health Board at a recent meeting that the nonprofit group did not intend to accept bids. Though Kearns said the group would accept bids.
Reach Lori Kersey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1240.