14 September 2007

W.Va. Lawmakers Weigh In On Logan Torture Allegations

As the unfolding case involving at least a half-dozen Logan County residents continues to attract national press attention, U.S. Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, both D-W.Va., have each issued statements on the case, MetroNews reports.

Delegate John Overington, R-Berkeley, is meanwhile researching state law to see whether he should propose legislation making torture a specific crime.

"Torture by itself when it’s not involving other cases doesn’t appear to be a crime”, he told The Register-Herald of Beckley.

The Associated Press has reported on the debate over whether the incident should be prosecuted as a hate crime. AP also examines the incident within the context of race relations in the mostly white Mountain State.

Whittaker's Woes

It's been nearly five years since Jack Whittaker hit the then-record Powerball jackpot. But the West Virginia contractor has become as known for what has befallen him since as when he gained national headlines for that Christmas 2002 win.

Whittaker recently shared his story with The Associated Press' Shaya Tayefe Mohajer.

"His wife left him and his drug-addicted granddaughter -- his protege and heir -- died. He endured constant requests for money," she writes. "Almost five years later, Whittaker is left with things money can't cure: His daughter's cancer, a long list of indiscretions documented in newspapers and court records, and an inability to trust others."

AP also offers a Q&A from the Whittaker interview.

Update: The AP interview with Tayefe Mohajer coincides with the settlement of one of several legal cases involving Whittaker, this one dealing with $49,000 worth of allegedly forged checks, the Charleston Daily Mail reports.

Manchin Continues To Preach Clean Coal

Gov. Joe Manchin met with three of his counterparts in Wyoming this week to urge federal funding of clean coal technology, The Associated Press reports.

"Manchin said there has been a 'movement away from coal,' but it won't last," the article said.

"It's going to be here. It's needed. It has to be part of the equation," Manchin said.

The governors seek federal incentives for such efforts as coal gasification, "which involves turning coal into gas before burning it. The process is cleaner than burning coal directly," the AP reports. "Incentives also could be used to get utilities to trap carbon dioxide from power plants and pump the gas underground, possibly as a way to recharge old, depleted oil fields."

Environmental advocates question how "green" some of these "clean coal" methods are, however.

Update: Federal data released this week shows "black lung disease rates among U.S. coal miners have doubled in the last decade," The Charleston Gazette reports.

13 September 2007

Giuliani Returns To West Virginia

Rudy Giuliani raised more money from Mountain State donors Wednesday, during a morning event at Morgantown's Waterfront Hotel. Afterward, the frontrunner of the 2008 GOP presidential field talked to reporters.

Besides Sept. 11 and Iraq, Giuliani spoke of the need to capture Osama bin Laden, The Associated Press reports. And while critical of Democrats and several of their presidential contenders, he demurred at an offer to smack Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va.

WBOY-TV has video from the event, while MetroNews offers an interview of Giuliani with Talkline host Hoppy Kercheval.

Petraeus, Crocker and W.Va.'s Delegation

As a member of the Armed Services Committee, U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., was among those to question Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker during their appearance this week on Capitol Hill.

C-Span has video (and links to all footage from the two days of hearings here).

Public Broadcasting and MetroNews, meanwhile, each fielded contrasting reactions to this week's presentations from Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd.

Public Broadcasting has audio, as does MetroNews.

12 September 2007

Grading W.Va.'s Development Office

Legislative auditors say the Development Office and its divisions, including the one devoted to international trade, have no way to track their successes and failures, The Associated Press reports.

But the auditors tapped federal data to find the following:

* Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) dropped by 27 percent between 1990 and 2004, despite trade offices in Japan, Taiwan and Germany for most of that time;

* Exports increased 44 percent from 2000 to 2006, but exports per-capita continue to lag behind eight of nine states deemed regional competitors;

* Per-capita FDI is average when compared to these nine competing states.

11 September 2007

The Legislature in Martinsburg

The Legislature has wrapped up its monthly three-day series of interim meetings, held this time in Martinsburg. Among other highlights:

* PULL! Gov. Joe Manchin joined lawmakers to mark Monday's opening of the Wobble Clay Shooting Range at Cacapon State Resort Park in nearby Morgan County. The Journal of Martinsburg reports that the range is the first of its kind at a West Virginia state park.

* A GRAND TOUR: Besides Cacapon, lawmakers were invited to visit such sites as the Caperton Furniture Works, historic Eastern Panhandle farmland, a particularly vexing traffic intersection in Inwood, Quad Graphics and the farm of Delegate Bob Tabb, D-Jefferson.

* GET ON THE PURPLE BUS: Thoughout the session, the "Children's Rights Initiative for Sharing Parents Equally" parked its violet-and-white tour bus/camper-type vehicle outside the host hotel. Allied with in-state father's rights groups, CRISPE advocates 50-50 custody arrangements "as the default legal position at separation or divorce."
Legislators were invited on board, as was Manchin during his Monday appearance at interims. Clad in purple shirts, members of this group also attended most meetings and in several cases filmed them.

* A NIGHT AT THE RACES: Charles Town Races & Slots hosted a Monday evening reception that drew more than 200 legislators, spouses, staffers and lobbyists.
Manchin also attended, as did several lawmakers who opposed the track's bid for casino table games (an unsuccessful effort, as Jefferson was the sole county among the four that voted to reject the referendum). That group included Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson, who exchanged words with a Charles Town official at the reception. Doyle later told AP that he was made to feel unwelcome, and left to avoid any further confrontation. The official was adamant to AP that he did not tell Doyle to leave or throw him out.

Quote of the Day

"All you need to be an expert on the Supreme Court is a couple of drinks and a mouth."

-- U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, to a Monday audience at an AARP-sponsored event at Marshall University in Huntington, as quoted by The Associated Press.

Clarence Thomas: You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas told a Huntington audience Monday that "the rapid pace of computer and information technology change" means new and ever-daunting legal conundrums for the nation's highest court, The Associated Press reports.

"Issues like abortion will be rendered almost simple compared to the issues we will face,'' Thomas told a crowd at an AARP-sponsored event at Marshall University.

The AP's Tom Breen also reports that Thomas touched on the unique nature of the court in this era of the 24-hour news cycle and endless spin.

"The real hard part of our work is behind closed doors,'' Thomas said. "We don't have a PR machine. We don't have town hall meetings. We're referees and none of us thinks a referee can make up rules as they go along.''

The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington covered the speech as well, and like AP noted that it marked the first visit by justice to the college named for the father of U.S. judicial review, Chief Justice John Marshall.

Audit Questions Spending By Gambling Helpline

After reviewing just $500,000 spent by a private contractor to run West Virginia's Problem Gamblers Help Network, Legislative auditors raised questions Monday about $90,000 worth of expenditures.

As The Associated Press reports, the audit presented during legislative interims prompted leading lawmakers to request a further review of spending by First Choice Health Systems.

Auditors had drawn a sample from First Choice's spending, selecting 234 expenditures out of 7,600 during a three-year time period.

First Choice has already agreed to repay more than $16,000 and continues to review the other flagged spending. The reimbursed amount reflects spending clearly not covered by its contract with the state _ on such things as flowers, food and travel.

"The spending included $1,573 to fly two daughters of a problem gambler to New York, for the taping of her interview by a national news program. Another $675 covered charges for a cell phone in the name of an employee's spouse," the AP article said.

"The expenses also included $1,200 in Christmas bonuses, $360 for a 2005 staff dinner at a New Orleans seafood restaurant and $68 for a horse carriage tour of that city."

MetroNews also has a story on the report, with audio from an interview with Legislative Auditor Aaron Allred.

In other gambling-related news:

*The Charleston Gazette reports that "Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper is declaring war on neighborhood gambling parlors."

* The Charleston Daily Mail observes that Carper also "has asked the county assessor to start reassessing property that belongs to Tri-State Racetrack & Gaming Center in Nitro and all the land that surrounds it" as the track prepares to offer the recently approved casino table games.

10 September 2007

W.Va. Coal on CNBC

CNBC visited Logan County, interviewed a local mining family and toured an underground mine as part of a segment, "Coal Mining: Very Risky Business."

CNBC aired the piece in advance of Sunday's memorial service for six miners left entombed beneath a Utah mountain after last month's collapse.

W.Va. Teacher Pension Quandary

Legislators meeting in Martinsburg for their monthly interim session are weighing ways to help teachers whose 401(k)-style individual retirement accounts simply haven't yielded sufficient benefits.

As The Associated Press reports, an actuarial consultant has outlined five scenarios through which the state could allow these account holders to merge voluntarily with the state's remaining teacher pension fund, the Teachers Retirement System.

Each option could actually save the state money _ but only if all 19,851 account holders agree to the terms. That's deemed highly unlikely, as 44 percent of them failed to take part in a recent election on the merger issue, 39 percent of those who did voted against merging and more than a 1,000 sued (successfully, thus far) to block the merger.

The Journal of Martinsburg is also out in force to cover the interims, with stories here, here and here.

A "Blankenship Factor" in 2008?

Several GOP lawmakers opined to The Associated Press on the question, during ongoing legislative interim meetings in Martinsburg.

The Massey Energy Chief sought to influence legislative races last year. His statewide advertising campaign spent at least $2.7 million (he reported $3.6 million to the Secretary of State, but seems to have double-counted expenditures) promoting Republican candidates while lambasting Democratic incumbents.

The results: the Democrats gained seats in both chambers, despite Blankenship's vow to hand the House to Republicans (the ad campaign focused on the House, though Blankenship and his allies also contributed to Senate candidates).

"His whole program and approach were really defective, in many ways," Sen. John Yoder, R-Jefferson, told AP. "The cookie-cutter approach, I think, was a disaster for House members."

Another Republican, Sen. Clark Barnes of Randolph County, has conducted a detailed analysis of how Blankenship's efforts failed _ and found one area where it apparently aided the GOP.

Blankenship is expected to target the state Supreme Court races next year. After all, his 2004 ad campaign helped Republican Brent Benjamin defeat then-incumbent Justice Warren McGraw.

Two of the high court's five seats are on the 2008 ballot. Blankenship is expected to support his friend since childhood, Justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard, and Charleston employment lawyer Elizabeth Walker. Her husband is an executive with Walker Machinery, the Blankenship industry ally and sponsor of the "Coal Keeps The Lights On" radio ads.