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Statehouse Beat: Capitol dome under examination after 150th fireworks show

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is getting pressure from within state government to authorize a thorough examination of the Capitol dome to determine if the gold leaf on the dome was damaged during the sesquicentennial fireworks shows.

Administration officials were quick to declare the dome unharmed after a quick eyeball-inspection by a couple of General Services Division employees and a representative from Zambelli Fireworks (no potential conflict there).

However, there are some important facts to weigh here:

• Commercial fireworks burn at a temperature in the range of 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit, or about twice the temperature needed to melt gold.

• The average speed of a launched fireworks shell is about 150 mph.

• Gold is a perfectly inert metal, meaning it does not rust or corrode. (Which is why architect Cass Gilbert proposed using gold leaf as, ironically, the least expensive way to cover and preserve the dome.)

• Once the less-than-paper-thin gold leaf is damaged, even with holes as small as one's fingertip, the exposed copper beneath will oxidize, eventually creating unsightly black streaks -- as were seen on the dome from the late 1990s until it underwent a $5 million restoration, completed in 2005.

I'm no architect or engineer, but I would think it cannot have been a good thing to have fireworks bouncing off the dome for three consecutive nights.

I'm surprised that the administration has been so cavalier to dismiss the possibility the gilding may have been damaged. If the dome had been struck by lightning or by a falling object, I'm sure there would be a hue and cry to get a thorough inspection.

Sesquicentennial Commission executive director Chelsea Ruby even noted that Zambelli had a similar show on the Capitol in 1996, for the Southern Legislative Conference, with no ill effects.

However, that was a smaller pyrotechnics display, and for one night only. One could also argue that within two years, the damage from missing pieces of gilding began to manifest itself as the streaks and black spots became noticeable from street level -- whether the fireworks in any way contributed to that damage will remain unknown.

Of course, if the administration authorizes a thorough, expert inspection of the gilding for possible damage, that's also a concession that it was a numbskull idea to shoot commercial pyrotechnics off the Capitol to begin with, and the finger-pointing will begin on who signed off on it.

***

Susan Perry, the last of three Department of Health and Human Resources whistleblowers to retain employment with the DHHR, was fired Friday.

Perry, who had been deputy secretary for legal services, had for the past seven months been processing Medicaid paperwork in a cubicle in a windowless office.

We're coming up on the one-year anniversary of when then-acting DHHR Secretary Rocco Fucillo placed Perry, legal counsel Jennifer Taylor and communications director John Law on paid administrative leave, supposedly for trying to intervene in the awarding of a multi-million dollar advertising contract.

Fucillo fired Law in January, and Taylor in February.

Perry and Taylor filed a whistleblower lawsuit against Fucillo and DHHR, contending they were disciplined for attempting to point out discrepancies in the bid process for the ad contract.

In an unsuccessful motion to dismiss that suit, DHHR attorneys claimed they lacked standing, since at the time, there had been no detrimental impact on their employment, job titles or salaries.

"It looks like they blew yet another hole in their defense," Walt Auvil, attorney representing Perry and Taylor, said Friday of Fucillo's decision to fire Perry.

"If they did something that was so horrible as to be terminated, why did they keep her on the payroll for almost a year?" Auvil asked.

Perry's firing could be seen as Fucillo's last hurrah, since Friday was his final day on the job as acting secretary.

Perry and Taylor's suit is set to go to trial in Kanawha Circuit Court next spring, but I still suspect that BRIM will be cutting some settlement checks between now and then.

***

Meanwhile, changes continue at DHHR: Marsha Dadisman, the department's communications director best known for frequently being incommunicado during times when Fucillo was in hot water, retired from state government on Friday.

Those close to the DHHR described her retirement as "unexpected."

***

Representatives from the Council of State Governments' Justice Center were at the Capitol last week for meetings with officials from the Tomblin administration, Supreme Court, Division of Corrections, and Regional Jail Authority regarding groundwork for implementing the Justice Reinvestment Act, passed by the Legislature in April.

Based on recommendations from Justice Center analysts, the law is intended to reduce severe overcrowding at state prisons and regional jails by reducing recidivism through mandatory post-release supervision for all released inmates, and expanded availability of substance abuse treatment and counseling programs.

***

Finally, working at the Capitol is always disconcerting this time of year, since one's workplace is also a tourist attraction. I understand people are on vacation and enjoying themselves, but do they have to flaunt it while some of us are here trying to work?

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com">philk@wvgazette.com or 304-338-1220.


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