Gov. Jim Justice speaks with the media prior to announcing funding for a new baseball stadium at Marshall University. The expense has come under scrutiny from lawmakers. Photo courtesy the Governor's Office.

A bill that would undo a jail secrecy law has advanced out of committee. But first, a look at the debate over how the last of West Virginia’s federal pandemic relief dollars will be spent.

Gov. Justice under fire over management of federal COVID relief dollars

Kelly Allen, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, speaks at a hearing on how COVID-19 funds are being spent. Photo by Perry Bennett/WV Legislative Photography.

Lawmakers and members of the public are raising concerns about how Gov. Jim Justice’s office has used federal money related to the coronavirus pandemic — and whether those funds have gone towards helping the communities that need it most. 

West Virginia received two pots of federal money during the pandemic: in 2020 the state was given $1.25 billion under the Coronavirus Aid Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to pay for coronavirus-related expenses that were not previously accounted for in state and city budgets. The next year the state received an additional $1.35 billion under the American Rescue Plan to help state and local governments address public health issues and other “negative economic impacts” tied to the pandemic. 

Now, Justice is seeking to transfer the state’s remaining $678 million in unallocated American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding. Under the bill lawmakers are considering, the lion’s share of the money, $500 million, would be allocated to the state’s Economic Development Authority. 

During a public hearing in the House chamber Thursday, 21 speakers weighed in on the legislation, with an overwhelming majority arguing that the ARPA money West Virginia received was intended to help address issues that particularly impacted communities of color and other disadvantaged groups in the state. They added that diverting so much of the remaining money into an economic development fund not only violated the spirit of West Virginia’s ARPA spending plan, it also disregarded Treasury Department guidance that said economic development was generally not an acceptable use of the money. 

“If this appropriation is passed, over $800 million, or two-thirds of the ARPA funds that the state received, will have gone to big corporations,” said Kelly Allen, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. 

Several speakers instead voiced support for an alternative spending plan from the Tuesday Morning Group that would allocate $300 million of the remaining ARPA funding to counties based on the percentage of people living in poverty in each county. That plan has not received much of a response from Republican legislative leadership, according to the group’s chairman Rev. Matthew Watts. 

One day later, senators were grilling members of the Governor’s office and other agencies about a different pot of federal money: the transfer of $28.3 million in CARES Act money intended to provide COVID relief into the Governor’s Office Gifts, Grants, and Donations Fund.

Questions have been raised about the ethics of that decision, particularly after $10 million of the fund was used to help pay for a new baseball stadium at Marshall University, the Governor’s alma mater.

“Isn’t that money laundering?” asked Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker. “I’m not saying there was anything illegally done. Some of it is borderline unethical … I guess we’ll find out?”

Berkeley Bentley, the governor’s chief counsel, countered that Justice’s office acted legally and was allowed to transfer the funds to reimburse the state government for allowable expenses. But senators were clearly unsatisfied with that argument, with committee chairman Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, saying that legislators should ask the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of the Inspector General to further review the transfer.  —P.R. Lockhart

Bill undoing 2022 jail secrecy law advances out of committee

Members of the West Virginia Senate Judiciary Committee listen to testimony this week. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislative Photography.

Lawmakers have begun advancing a bill to undo legislation passed last year that made most records from the state’s jails and prisons confidential.

SB 495 was introduced last month by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, in response to reporting by Mountain State Spotlight that revealed that last year’s passage of SB 441 created a new tool for corrections officials to deny requests made under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

Trump wants to restore a version of the bill that the Senate approved last year, which ensured that the state’s public records law would still apply to jail records. That version was later changed in the House Judiciary Committee before the bill passed unanimously in the House and Senate on the final day of the legislative session.

Some legislators have said they were unaware of the changes when they voted for the bill.

Trump has said that he believes the public deserves access to jail records, especially the families of those who have died behind bars.

“We need to make sure that whatever we do doesn’t shrink the accessibility of information from FOIA,” Trump said in an interview earlier this month. “In the interest of compassion, we should be willing to provide the family of the deceased with the information and records they need.”

The bill cleared Trump’s Judiciary Committee Friday with no opposition. 

Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, spoke in support of the legislation, saying that the result of last year’s bill “was shielding the public from very vital information.”

No one from the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation spoke to the bill at the hearing.

Since June, the division has frequently used the 2022 bill as the basis for denying records requests. If the new bill becomes law, it does not mandate that the division release specific records to the families of those who die in jail or prison, so it’s possible the division could continue to use other exemptions to prevent disclosure, as it has in the past.

Many of those requests for information are from attorneys representing family members of those who have died in the state’s jails and prisons. There were 52 deaths in West Virginia correctional facilities in 2022, according to data provided by the division, and a 2020 investigation by Reuters found that West Virginia had the highest jail death rate out of the 45 states surveyed. 

The Division of Corrections has said previously that it doesn’t comment on pending legislation. The bill now goes to the full Senate. —Dan Lawton

P.R. Lockhart is Mountain State Spotlight's Economic Development Reporter.

Dan Lawton is the economic justice reporter for Mountain State Spotlight. He previously worked as a reporter in Northern California and New Orleans, covering criminal justice, government and high-profile...