Gov. Jim Justice speaks at Leer South Mine in Philippi, W.Va., on Nov. 3, 2023. (Office of the Gov. Jim Justice | Courtesy photo)
A couple of weeks ago, the West Virginia Democratic Party sent out a news release calling out Del. Elliott Pritt in response to a paraphrased quote I included in a commentary.
“Delegate Pritt needs to disclose unlawful partisan bias in state agencies,” the headline states.
Pritt, R-Fayette, told Politico in an article from August, that in the few months since he changed parties from Democrat to Republican, he had noticed that his calls to agencies get returned, which didn’t happen when he was a Democrat.
“According to yesterday’s West Virginia Watch, Delegate Elliott Pritt alleged that under Governor Justice, state agencies were in violation of state and federal law, as well as the West Virginia Constitution, by following a policy of exclusively responding to requests for assistance based on partisan affiliation,” the release states.
West Virginia Democratic Party Chair Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, asks in the release if Pritt will call on Gov. Jim Justice to “commence a complete top to bottom review of state agency policies with regard to the contemptible partisan practice he alleges?”
The Democratic Party is right to be angry, but its anger is directed at the wrong person. It’s not Pritt’s fault that his calls are getting returned since changing parties — it’s a Justice problem.
Pushkin — and the Democratic Party — should be calling out Justice and should have been calling him out since he was elected to office for his lack of transparency with everyone, but especially the media.
Beginning in 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic, Justice has held virtual briefings that make it easier for him to avoid talking to members of the media. He prefers those who don’t ask tough questions and has harsh words for those who do, like Phil Kabler, a former statehouse reporter for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Justice once said during a briefing that “it would have been wonderful” if Kabler’s train had been hijacked when he was in California and he was stuck there forever.
This was right before Justice said he was going to sue Kabler and the Gazette-Mail over “volumes of stuff,” including a column where Kabler unfavorably compared West Virginia’s COVID-19 numbers to California’s. A lawsuit was never filed.
And although it’s been almost four years and the federal COVID-19 Public Health Emergency declaration ended on May 11, Justice still continues to hold virtual briefings and he’s frequently somehow late to them — perhaps getting stuck in traffic driving from his home in Lewisburg to Charleston.
I emailed Justice’s press secretary on Thursday to inquire why the briefings are still held virtually, but I haven’t received a response.
Reporters are asked to RSVP to the briefing if they want to ask questions. A West Virginia Watch reporter who did so received a call asking what question she wanted to ask the governor. This is not normal for most press conferences. Typically, you want to ask questions based on what you heard at the press conference.
If Justice’s team doesn’t like your question during the prescreening, you’re told they’ll look into it and get back to you. Our reporters are still waiting for Justice’s office to get back to them.
At last week’s virtual briefing, as his administration came under fire for allegedly destroying emails that would be evidence in a lawsuit involving Southern Regional Jail, Justice said he expects his administration to be transparent.
“Everybody knows, anybody in my office, or any of our secretaries — everybody knows I expect everybody to be transparent,” Justice said. “I expect everybody to be honest. I expect everybody to be absolutely open book. Whatever you want to look at I think we ought to be able to show everyone anything that is within our capabilities or reason to be able to do so.”
The Southern Regional Jail lawsuit isn’t the only case that involves deleted evidence. In the class-action lawsuit against the state that alleges the Department of Health and Human Resources is failing children in foster care, emails related to the case were also deleted.
Justice’s belief in transparency apparently doesn’t extend to his own campaign. The national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee filed a suit in May after Justice denied a Freedom of Information Act Request to hand over public records regarding his schedule after he announced his intentions to run for Sen. Joe Manchin’s U.S. Senate seat.
“The governor’s office provided no adequate justification for this refusal,” the complaint states. “Instead, it cited exemptions that do not apply to the requested records and cases from other jurisdictions which do not track West Virginia law.”
Even state Republicans have complained about a lack of transparency with Justice, specifically with the Department of Health and Human Resources oversight of foster care and Child Protective Services.
Del. Amy Summers, R-Taylor, chair of both the House Health Committee and the Health and Human Resources Accountability Committee has said lawmakers can’t even get information from DHHR related to Child Protective Services. Like the media, they’ve been told that state code prohibits DHHR from providing any information on children.
Summers told MetroNews that lawmakers need more oversight than they are currently allowed, and during this month’s interim meetings lawmakers are going to propose a bill that allows a special investigation committee to hear more information about CPS cases.
Last week, we heard that the West Virginia First Foundation, a group formed to determine how to distribute the state’s $1 billion in opioid settlement funds, was supposed to hold its first meeting on Nov. 6 in Charleston. As we tried to find out when and where the foundation’s inaugural meeting was to be held, Caity Coyne reached out to Justice’s office and was told, “please refer this to the AG’s office. Our office just appointed those five members. Hope you get your answers.” If Justice wants everyone to be transparent, then he should have told the attorney general’s office that it needs to release information about the meeting instead of wishing us luck.
West Virginia Democrats and Republicans need to push harder on Justice to get him to be more transparent and to require state agencies to do the same.
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