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Statehouse Beat: The DHHR plot thickens

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It was a tough week for former West Virginia University football players turned public officials.

First, there was the mysterious case of the search warrant for offices of three Department of Health and Human Resources administrators obtained by Kanawha County prosecutor Mark Plants over allegations of bid-rigging.

Never mind that all the documents and records in question are state property, and all located in locked and secured offices in a state office building. Heck, the DHHR inspector general didn't need the employees' consent to seize the items in question, let alone a search warrant.

Unlike most search warrants, which are terse documents citing the items sought, proximate locations and their relevance to the investigation, this was a nine-page essay that effectively gave DHHR acting secretary Rocco Fucillo's spin on the advertising contract fiasco.

(As Walt Auvil, the attorney for two of the DHHR administrators, commented, it read more like a press release than a criminal complaint.)

Many statehouse observers harkened back to 2002, when then-federal prosecutor Kasey Warner - brother of then-state GOP chairman Kris Warner - coyly declined to "confirm or deny" GOP-planted rumors of a federal grand jury investigation of then-Senate Finance Chairman Oshel Craigo, D-Putnam, weeks before the general election.

Of course, nothing ever came of the supposed investigation, but the rumors were sufficient to cost Craigo the election.

Republican Plants may not have been considering the political ramifications when he signed off on the warrant, but I would be shocked if Bill Maloney doesn't soon have an ad making hay of the investigation. (Perhaps something along the lines of Cleve Benedict's infamous 1992 spot, "Corruption. Caperton. You can smell the sleaze.")

Breaking his silence on the matter after eight long weeks, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin played it down the middle, issuing a statement saying he won't tolerate wrongdoing in state government, whether this turns out to be a matter of bid-rigging or obstructing whistleblowers.

Even relying strictly on the statements in the search warrant, this episode stills stacks up on the side of whistleblowing over bid-rigging.

A caller who left a voice mail Friday put it more succinctly than I could:

"They wanted him [Fucillo] to take a lower bid, and one that's in-state, and now they're being investigated? I don't quite understand that."

Between the investigation, and the defamation/whistleblower suits, the truth eventually will come out.

***

Meanwhile, a reader wanted to know if any members of the DHHR bid evaluation team had expertise in advertising and marketing, giving the ability to make more than a layman's hunch about which of proposed campaigns and media strategies would be most effective when scoring the bid proposals.

The answer is, not really. The evaluation team consisted of DHHR spokeswoman Marsha Dadisman, Bureau of Public Health spokesman Scott Eubank and DHHR purchasing director Donna Smith.

***

Likewise, newly appointed Regional Jail Authority Executive Director Joe DeLong took quite a grilling from legislators last week over his failure to investigate allegations by then-operations director John Lopez that somebody put a surveillance device in his office at RJA headquarters.

DeLong came off as a bit too cavalier when he explained the failure to initiate an internal investigation by telling legislators he does not act on "rumors, innuendo, and what's been in the press."

***

Finally, it's early yet, but fair to say the most obscure attack ad this campaign is Republican Governors Association's "quack like a duck" spot, accusing Tomblin of supporting state legislation for retiree health care that "looks a lot like Obamacare ..."

I was racking my brain trying to figure out what piece of state legislation they could possibly be referencing, and given that I have the eyes of an 80-year-old, it took a few viewings to spot the tiny citation for SB469.

Holy smokes, I thought, that's the funding mechanism to pay off the state's $4 billion OPEB liability - which means that in twenty-some years, when other states are canceling retiree health insurance because they've run out of money, retired West Virginia public employees will still enjoy paid health care provided by the state.

Not only that, but the legislation avoids imposing budget-busting $600 million annual contributions from taxpayers for retiree benefits, as would have been required under a pay-as-you-go plan.

So Republicans are opposed to good fiscal management? The bill does have some boilerplate language calling on the PEIA director to take steps to promote retiree wellness programs, and to manage health care delivery costs through initiatives to reduce excessive emergency room visits, overuse of imaging services, and other cost-drivers.

However, that's a long, long way from the ad's claim that it rations health care.

Meanwhile, the RGA has not filed a spending disclosure with the secretary of state's office for the ad, and evidently, does not need to, since there's no call to action - no "vote for," "for against," "call and tell him," etc. - in the spot to trigger the electioneering communications spending disclosure requirement.

Very clever, RGA. Very clever.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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