19 October 2007

West Virginia Is Now A Casino State

The years-long tumult over bringing casino table games to West Virginia yielded Friday's opening of poker rooms at the state's two Northern Panhandle tracks.

The Associated Press covered both debuts, of the 20-table room at Wheeling Island Racetrack & Gaming Center and the 37 tables at Mountaineer Race Track & Gaming Resort.

“It just puts us in a whole different light,” Wheeling Island General Manager Bob Marshall told AP. “We’re a casino now. We couldn’t say that yesterday.”

Mountaineers Are... "Frequently Grossly Tainted"

So says Forbes magazine which ranks West Virginia at the bottom of its recent survey, "America's Greenest States."

"West Virginia posted low scores in every category, notably carbon footprint (fourth highest) and water cleanliness (we ranked it fourth worst)," the state's entry said. "It's got more toxic waste to manage per capita than all but three states. In 2005, it disposed of or released 97.1 million lbs of toxic waste."

But, wait, there's more.

"The state exceeded its Clean Water Act permit levels by an average of 679% in 2005, according to U.S. PIRG," the article continues. "This means the water was frequently grossly tainted."

West Virginia officials "dismissed the rating, saying it was based on misleading data and a subjective scoring system," The Charleston Gazette reports.

“If I had to pay for it, I wouldn’t,” Environmental Protection Secretary Stephanie Timmermeyer told the newspaper. “I’m not giving a lot of credence to the ranking.”

18 October 2007

They Voted For You: SCHIP Veto Override

West Virginia's U.S. House delegation, Reps. Alan Mollohan, D-1st, Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, and Nick Rahall, D-3rd, voted Thursday to override President Bush's veto of the State Children's Health Insurance Program legislation.

The 273-156 effort failed to muster a sufficient majority. Capito was among 44 House Republicans to support an override. Two Democrats broke ranks to oppose it.

The Associated Press has details.

You Might Be A Redneck. Or Not.

The Charleston Daily Mail is among those covering a recent appearance by the state's chief public schools auditor in Lincoln County, during which he referred to ""four-wheel riding, dope-smoking, alcoholic rednecks."

"I used those words, but I didn't call the people in Lincoln County that," Kenna Seal told the Daily Mail. "I used those words to describe a lifestyle that I have noticed in places across the country and even in West Virginia."

Some Lincoln County residents think otherwise, as the Gazette, Public Broadcasting, WCHS-TV and MetroNews also report.

The Lincoln Journal apparently got the ball rolling.

(MetroNews has audio, while Public Broadcasting has audio and the text of Seal's response letter.)


Scott Ritter, a former Marine who became a UN weapons inspector and then a conspicuous critic of the Bush administration's Iraq policy, will talk about his experiences next week during a visit to the Mountain State.

Slated to appear Oct. 25 at West Virginia State University, he spoke recently to Public Broadcasting (with audio).

Mississippi Burning

Jerry Mitchell, the investigative reporter whose articles helped reopen numerous unsolved murders and other crimes during the 1960s struggle for civil rights, will speak Tuesday at West Virginia University at Parkersburg.

The Parkersburg News and Sentinel, a co-sponsor of the free event, notes that
"as a result of Mitchell’s investigations, authorities in Mississippi and six other states have reexamined 29 killings from the civil rights era resulting in 23 convictions."

Why Johnny Can't Read (That!)

Kanawha County's school board is embroiled over the reading selection for a Nitro High School Advanced Placement Literature Class.

As Public Broadcasting reports, "
It’s a fight that reminds some of the Kanawha County textbook wars of the 1970s, when parents pulled thousands of children from the schools in protest of so-called “Godless textbooks.”

The Charleston Gazette, which also covered Wednesday's packed, 3 1/2 hour board meeting, noted that "
Some George Washington English students formed a coalition with Nitro students, hoping that board members allow teachers to continue to assign controversial books."

Both WSAZ-TV and WOWK-TV have video from the meeting.

Update: The West Virginia Values Coalition has posted its open letter to the school board addressing the controversey.

Blankenship Issues Ultimatum

Unless he wins his pending federal lawsuit against Gov. Joe Manchin, Don Blankenship has vowed that he cannot remain atop Massey Energy Co. and stay involved in West Virginia politics.

As The Associated Press reports, his lawyers have told Manchin's that "governor has violated his free speech rights to the extent where, absent winning the lawsuit, 'he cannot, in good faith, continue to serve as the head of Massey and remain to be politically active in the state.'"

But in their Oct. 5 court filing, Blankenship's lawyers also said that "As such, he will no longer speak out on any issues of public interest or participate in any meaningful way in the political processes of the state."

(Given that he's expected to weigh in on next year's Supreme Court race, I asked him whether these statements mean no participation whatsoever. He replied that the filings speak for themselves, but also that the lengthy section of the filing that addresses this issue must be considered in its entirety.)

As noted earlier, Blankenship has spent an estimated $7.5 million on political activities in West Virginia since 2003. The court filing details more than $4 million of that spending, most of it after Blankenship alleges that Manchin chilled his speech rights.

"The filing also suggests that Blankenship increased his public statements after Manchin's alleged threat. It lists 22 speeches since the incident, compared with five in the preceding months, and 20 media interviews since compared to six beforehand," the AP article said.

But despite these appearances, the failed 2006 campaign targeting Democratic legislators and the like, Blankenship says he would be doing much more if not for the governor.

Blankenship otherwise would have attacked Manchin for "politicizing mine health and safety issues," failing to improve the state's business climate, and for his "continued placement of friends and family in government positions and otherwise engaging in cronyism.," the filing said.

Blankenship also sought to outline his damages in the filing, including $4.5 million from the drop of Massey stock and $25 million from lost chances to sit on corporate boards of directors -- all blamed on Manchin.

17 October 2007

2008 Money Race: Congress

Each of West Virginia's three U.S. House members have raised $500,000 or more toward their re-election bid, according to the most recent Federal Election Commission filings.

Rep. Nick Rahall, D-3rd, leads the delegation in this regard, with nearly $1.3 million on hand as of Sept. 30.

But the real news may be the $150,000 that state Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, has attracted in his bid to challenge Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd.

As The Associated Press reports, "Unger appears better positioned than his predecessor. Democrat Mike Callaghan did not reach the $150,000 mark in his unsuccessful 2006 challenge of Capito until that year's primary election."

AP also observes that "No Republicans have yet surfaced to take on (Rep. Alan) Mollohan (D-1st) or Rahall, while none of the three incumbents yet faces a declared primary challenger. But at least one other Democrat, Thornton Cooper, plans to seek the nomination to take on Capito."

Cooper announced his candidacy after the reporting period. Besides the money edge for any contested primary, Unger also enjoys the support of both Rahall and Mollohan. Such was in evidence at Saturday's Jefferson-Jackson Dinner.

(I'm told the dinner raised $280,000 for the state Democratic Party, though the costs of staging it at the Charleston Civic Center could reach $80,000.)

2008 Money Race: Presidency

West Virginians have given about $584,000 to the 2008 presidential candidates, and nearly 39 percent of that total has gone to Democrat Hillary Clinton.

The New York senator has surpassed fellow Democrat John Edwards as the White House contender with the most Mountain State money, $227,000 as of Sept. 30, The Associated Press reports. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani continues to lead among Republicans.

Both Clinton and Giuliani have held fundraisers in the state. So has Edwards, including one that his wife was slated to headline but ended up doing by conference call.

All figures come from online Federal Election Commission reports.

Clinton's figures roughly, but not exactly, comport with what AP obtained from her campaign earlier this month. Some of the donors listed in the AP-received data may have come in after the Sept. 30 reporting deadline.

They Voted For You: Media Shield

West Virginia's three U.S. House members - Reps. Alan Mollohan, D-1st, Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, and Nick Rahall, D-3rd - voted for the "Free Flow of Information Act of 2007."

The measure, which passed the House 398-21, aims to "maintain the free flow of information to the public by providing conditions for the federally compelled disclosure of information by certain persons connected with the news media."

President Bush has been advised to veto the bill, in a White House statement issued Tuesday.

The Associated Press reports on the "media shield bill."

16 October 2007

Byrd, Rockefeller Sign Limbaugh Letter

And, no, not the one the talk radio kingpin sends to subscribers.

Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller were among 41 Democrats in their chamber to join Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in a letter of complaint to Clear Channel Communications CEO Mark Mays.

Reid and other Democrats called on Mays earlier this month to repudiate the "phony soldiers" remarks made by Limbaugh in late September. CNN is among those with a story about the comments, and Mays' response to the letter.

The Oct. 2 letter to Mays is being auctioned off on eBay, with proceeds to benefit the Marine Corps - Law Enforcement Foundation. The bidding, which ends Oct. 19, has reached $56,000.

Byrd and Rockefeller, both D-W.Va., had earlier voted against a resolution meant to respond to the newspaper ad from MoveOn.org critical of U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus.

Kenneth Ervin, 1962-2007

A leading advocate for West Virginians with disabilities, Ken Ervin, died over the weekend. He was 45.

"If you’ve spent much time at the state Capitol, you may have seen Ervin wheeling down the hallways – leading a protest or trying to corner a lawmaker or government official," Public Broadcasting observes in a piece about his unexpected death.

The Charleston Gazette has the obituary.

The Charleston Daily Mail profiled Ervin on Wednesday.

Home Rule In West Virginia

Several Mountain State communities are lining up for slots in next year's pilot project allowing increased autonomy (and tax-generating authority) for municipalities.

As both the Herald-Dispatch and Public Broadcasting (with audio) report, Huntington is hoping home rule will help it tackle some of its more chronic problems. The newspaper also offers an explanation of the pilot program approved by the Legislature earlier this year.

Charleston is weighing taking part as well, though Mayor Danny Jones entered the debate Monday "by declaring his opposition to a possible personal income tax," The Charleston Gazette reports. City Council, meanwhile, may submit the issue to voters, the Gazette also reports.

15 October 2007

Mark Coyle, 1965-2007

Mark Coyle, 42, a former Statehouse reporter for MetroNews and longtime GOP political operative, was killed in a weekend car crash in upstate New York.

The Post-Standard of Syracuse has an article on the wreck, which also killed a second driver and left Coyle's 5-year-old daughter seriously injured.

MetroNews also has an item.

Coyle's more recent clients included former state Sen. Sarah Minear, R-Tucker, and John Raese. Though based in the Beltway section of Virginia for several years, Coyle continued to keep an eye on Mountain State politics.

Update: A newspaper in Coyle's native New York has his obituary.

Monday Morning Miscellany

* Phil Kabler offers a roundup of recent political fundraisers, among other tidbits, in today's column in The Charleston Gazette.

* Secretary of State Betty Ireland pledges to return to politics after the 2008 elections, and this future office "would not be anything lower than the secretary of state’s office," she told the Martinsburg-Berkeley County Chamber of Commerce. The Journal has the story.

* The state Division of Corrections continues to back a program allowing female inmates to care for their newborns while behind bars, but the idea has its opponents, The Register-Herald of Beckley reports.

* The Gazette reports on some good news from Marshall University's medical school.

* West Virginia begins the second round of voting today for its welcome sign slogan, MetroNews notes.

* U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., continues his push for the Children's Health Insurance Program in an interview with the Bluefield Daily Telegraph.

* U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., bids farewell to a storied Charleston institution, the open-all-night Southern Kitchen, in today's Gazette.

Blankenship's Political Spending Reaches $7.5m

Don Blankenship's status as the George Soros of West Virginia politics kicks up a notch with a recent court filing that sheds new light on his 2006 election activities.

As The Associated Press reports, the Massey Energy Co. chief has disclosed contributing nearly $400,000 to conservative advocacy groups last year -- including at least one that then echoed his main campaign targeting Democratic legislators.

This spending is in addition to the more than $110,000 he contributed directly to his slate of GOP candidates and the $3.5 million he plowed into his main "And For The Sake Of The Kids" campaign.

The revelations come from a list detailing $4.08 million in political spending by Blankenship, compiled by his lawyers in his federal lawsuit against Gov. Joe Manchin. Lawyers for Manchin requested the information as they challenge his claim that the governor has violated his free speech rights.

The list encompasses spending from November 2004 to late December 2006, and so also includes his campaign against the 2005 pension bond issue. Though it does not include the 2004 election, Blankenship earlier estimated spending $3.5 million during that cycle "to unseat Supreme Court Justice Warren McGraw, a Democrat, and elect Republican Brent Benjamin in his place," the AP article notes.

And with the Oct. 5 court filing bringing his known to-date total to about $7.5 million, Blankenship is expected to weigh in on next year's two-seat state Supreme Court race.

Bill Clinton In West Virginia

(Photo courtesy of Bob Bird. Nice placement of the former president's latest book, which is destined to slip from the Top 10 of The New York Times' nonfiction bestseller list Sunday.)

The Mountain State's Democratic Party is boasting of record-breaking attendance and funds raised from Saturday's Jefferson-Jackson Dinner headlined by former President Bill Clinton.

As The Associated Press reports, Clinton was also the draw for events earlier in the evening for his wife's presidential bid and the re-election campaign of Gov. Joe Manchin.

Among other highlights from the annual dinner that attracts party faithful large and small:

* The Rev. Dennis Sparks of the West Virginia Council of Churches included digs at both state-sanctioned gambling and President Bush's Iraq policy in his opening invocation;

* U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., rode his "Big Daddy" moniker a little farther, during a lengthy speech that rivaled Clinton's for the crowd's affections. "You've still got it," Clinton later remarked.

* Clinton also recalled how he at times incurred Byrd's wrath (chronicled in Bob Woodward's The Agenda, among other places) during his presidency. "It's like God is giving you a personal notice of disapproval," Clinton said.

* Reps. Alan Mollohan, D-1st, and Nick Rahall, D-3rd, used their time onstage to endorse state Sen. John Unger as a challenger to Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd. This, despite Thornton Cooper's entry in the race, though Rahall and Mollohan had already embraced the Berkeley County Democrat earlier this year.

* The state party inducted Wylie Stowers to its Hall of Fame after 31 years as its Lincoln County chairman. When the latest round of election fraud allegations surfaced there in late 2004, he told AP, "There sure isn't any vote buying going on around here now... Maybe a hundred years ago." Just months earlier, his son, then-Circuit Clerk Greg Stowers, spread around $7,000 to do just that. The younger Stowers resigned office and pleaded guilty the following year.

WSAZ-TV has footage of Clinton's entire speech as well as a shorter video segment.

Others who covered Clinton include MetroNews (with audio), WCHS-TV (with embedded video), WOWK-TV (with video), and The Charleston Gazette.

14 October 2007

Another Black Eye For General Services

The list of problems at West Virginia's General Services Division runs long -- abused overtime, a taxpayer-funded video piracy studio, a neglected multimillion-dollar state parking garage and no inventory system for its array of tools and equipment, to name a few.

The scandals reached federal court last week, when a former supervisor pleaded guilty to rigging bids for asbestos and lead abatement contracts in exchange for kickbacks from the Maryland firm that received them.

The Charleston Gazette reports on the details in the case against Paul Prendergast, 45.

Prendergast was the division's occupational health and safety coordinator from 1998 to March 2003, and so had access to bid information from companies competing for the contracts.

Federal prosecutors say that in addition to three kickbacks from the firm totaling $11,000, a second company owned by the same principals paid him $140,000 between March 2003 to December 2005.

Neither firm was identified in a statement of facts filed by prosecutors in Prendergast's case.

"Prendergast agreed to cooperate with the ongoing investigation," the Gazette reports. "He faces up to five years in prison."