04 April 2008

Gas Price Protest Expected to Crowd Capitol

Frustration over gas prices _ and the state tax components therein _ has boiled over into a grass-roots protest that could have hundreds of truckers converging on the West Virginia Capitol in their rigs Friday.

The Associated Press, MetroNews (with audio), the Charleston Daily Mail and The Charleston Gazette offer a preview. The latter spoke to 0rganizer Gary Davis, a Sutton-based handyman.

"We want fuel prices rolled back two [dollars] to two and a quarter," Davis told the newspaper. "We know that something can be done; it's a racket."

Organizers have dubbed the rolling protest the "Hillbilly Express." Once at the Capitol, the drivers hope to speak to Gov. Joe Manchin.

Belated Update: The protest didn't yield the numbers organizers had hoped for, but AP counted more than 60 trucks and rigs pull off Interstate 64/77. Once at the Capitol, the truckers and their supporters heard from a senior aide to Manchin and other state officials. Their message, that relief could only be reached at the federal level, did little for the protesters.

"Several said they face being forced to idle or even sell their rigs. A show of hands suggested most lack health coverage, with a number indicating they shed that benefit to cut costs," AP reported. "Amid talk of returning next week in larger numbers, some protesters called for a statewide hauling shutdown. Others spoke of rallying West Virginians to spearhead a national push to tackle the problem."

Manchin was absent, on an out-of-state trip. That only worsened the protesters' mood - until, as The Charleston Gazette reported, his staffers arranged a closed-door teleconference between the governor and protest leaders.

Besides pledging to relay their plea to President Bush, "Manchin also promised to form a coalition with other governors through the Democratic Governors Association to press for fuel-price support when the group meets on Tuesday," The Gazette reported.

"I will ask President Bush to release some of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to help stabilize the current cost of fuel," Manchin said in a statement released after the protest. "But we also need to understand that this would be a short-term bandage; the key is that we've got to get the federal government to understand the urgency of this issue."

Public Broadcasting also has a story, with audio.

Ohio County Runs Afoul of Voter ID Rule

West Virginia does not require voters to provide identification at the polls unless they are newly registered, but as The Intelligencer of Wheeling reports, "poll workers in Ohio County are instructed to ask for identification if they do not recognize the voter."

"In addition, all those taking part in early voting at the courthouse always are asked to show a photo ID," the newspaper was told by county election officials.

That's news to Secretary of State Betty Ireland, who learned of the practice while speaking at West Liberty State College on Thursday, the article said.

"She was taken aback when someone in attendance — an Ohio County resident — said she already is asked to show identification at the polls and has been for the past seven years since she moved to the state," the newspaper reported.

The student was turned away at least once after forgetting her ID, Ireland was told. "Such is the reason Ireland said she opposes requiring voter identification in the state," the article continued. "The voter often won’t return if not permitted to vote, while many others — such as senior citizens, poorer residents and the handicapped — may not have a driver’s license."

03 April 2008

Massey Repeats Supreme Court Victory in Harman Case

West Virginia's Supreme Court has again voted 3-2 to vacate the $76 million judgment reached against Massey Energy Co. in a Boone County case.

The majority opinion is here, while the dissent is here.

Background is here, here, here, here and here.

Update: The Associated Press has a report.

Update II: Others with coverage include The Charleston Gazette, MetroNews and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The latter focuses on the losing side's pledge to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Quote of the Day

"If you're going to start taking pictures of me, you're liable to get shot."

-- Massey chief executive Don Blankenship to an ABC News camera crew, during a less than successful Tuesday interview attempt, as reported by The Associated Press.

Hechler Documentary to Debut

Marshall University will host the Saturday premiere of "Ken Hechler: In Pursuit of Justice," which the Herald-Dispatch describes as "a two-hour documentary focusing on the life, career and legacy of the former West Virginia congressman and secretary of state."

The Associated Press also spoke to Hechler about the film, which involved more than 50 interviews and footage from the Truman Library and other archives. Those who contributed include Bob Dole, George McGovern, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Chuck Yeager.

The Huntington newspaper also offers a gallery of photos from throughout the life of Hechler, 93.

Free and open to the public, the documentary will be shown at 7 p.m. the Memorial Student Center's Don Morris Room. "Lionel Cartwright, the country singer-songwriter who produced its soundtrack, will also perform," AP notes.

ABC News Walks on the Fightin' Side of Blankenship

"Massey Energy Co. CEO Don Blankenship threatened to shoot an ABC News producer and physically attacked him when the newsman tried to interview the coal company executive in a parking lot near Blankenship's office," The Associated Press reports, quoting a network spokesman.

The Charleston Daily Mail also has a story about the alleged tussle "in the parking lot of the Massey Energy chief's Kentucky office."

"ABC is working on a story about Blankenship's relationship with state Supreme Court Chief Justice Elliott 'Spike' Maynard," AP explains. "The two were photographed vacationing in Monaco in July 2006 while Massey had cases pending before the court."

Blankenship told the Daily Mail "he grabbed the reporter's shirt Tuesday but only after the reporter aggressively shoved a camera in his face and hit him in the chest with it."

As AP relates, Blankenship then says "the producer grabbed his arm and he grabbed the producer's chest to keep his balance. Blankenship said he slowly moved the producer toward his car and repeatedly asked him to leave."

"ABC plans to air footage next week that shows Blankenship telling the producer, 'If you're going to start taking pictures of me, you're liable to get shot,'" ABC spokesman Jeffrey Schneider told AP.

Blankenship then grabbed the camera, snapped off a microphone, put his hand's to the man's throat and tore his shirt collar, Schneider said.

"Blankenship said he doesn't remember saying the producer might be shot, though he doesn't dispute that comment," the AP article said.

Update: ABC News has a story and a 12-photo slide show.

Graham Speaks

Having beaten the resulting federal criminal charges, Bob Graham fielded questions Thursday on MetroNews' Talkline about his tenure at Wyoming County's Council on Aging.

Graham lashed out at federal prosecutors, the media and state Attorney General Darrell McGraw while defending the pay and perks he received while the agency's director.

"In March 2002, Graham signed a contract for a base salary of $185,000 with the Council on Aging," MetroNews explains. "That contract included 54 days of paid vacation time a year along with 24 days of paid sick leave, 18 state holidays and overtime. Graham's contract included a number of other bonuses like a company car."

Graham cited such other nonprofits as Charleston Area Medical Center and West Virginia University Hospitals to conclude that his compensation package was not excessive.

"I can say that it was justified by salary studies and based on the number of years and the growth in the companies," Graham told Talkline host Hoppy Kercheval.

Graham also said he is seeking the return of his seized retirement account, "valued $300,000 at one point," MetroNews reported.

MetroNews also offers audio from the interview.

Manchin Sounds Off on BrickStreet Jaunt

West Virginia created the BrickStreet Insurance Co. in 2005 to replace the state-run workers' compensation program. To aid its transition from public agency to private company, BrickStreet will remain free of competitors until July 1.

As that deadline approaches, the company held its annual gathering this week at Griffin Gate Marriott Resort & Spa in Lexington. As the Charleston Daily Mail has reported, BrickStreet has declined to comment on that out-of-state choice.

But the Daily Mail found Gov. Joe Manchin not nearly so reluctant:

When told that BrickStreet officials refused to comment for the story, Manchin said, "Bull," wheeled around and asked Press Secretary Matt Turner to get BrickStreet President and Chief Executive Officer Greg Burton on the phone.
After a brief talk with Burton, Manchin told the newspaper that "I think it's wrong for a company born out of West Virginia, by West Virginians and for West Virginians to do this."

The Register-Herald also has a story on Manchin's reaction. The Beckley-area Glade Springs resort had hosted BrickStreet's two previous annual meetings.

Wesleyan Hosts Debate

The Republican candidates for state attorney general and the Democrats vying for the nod in the 2nd U.S. House District squared off separately at debates hosted Wednesday by West Virginia Wesleyan College.

The Associated Press offers details from the congressional candidates' remarks, while Public Broadcasting has both that and highlights from the AG debate.

Starcher Fighting Move to Block Massey Recusal Hearing

Justice Larry Starcher is hoping to keep his unprecedented April 10 hearing on a pending recusal motion targeting him from Massey Energy Co.

"In a Wednesday letter to his fellow justices, Starcher reminded them that Massey is suing the high court over its rules governing recusal requests," The Associated Press reports. "Starcher also noted that it was Massey chief executive Don Blankenship who was photographed with Chief Justice Elliott "Spike'' Maynard in Monaco while the company had cases pending before the court."

During public appearances, Starcher has criticized Massey while calling Blankenship "stupid,'' a "clown'' and a "cancer'' on the court. The coal producer has invoked such statements in seeking his disqualification as it appeals a $240 million judgment won against it by Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp.

"Starcher recused himself in a separate Massey appeal before scheduling the April 10 public hearing in the Wheeling-Pitt case," the AP article said.

The Charleston Gazette also reports on Starcher's response.

Chelsea Clinton Coming to W.Va.

The former first daughter has added stops in Montgomery and Huntington to her previously announced visit to the state, on behalf of her mother's presidential campaign.

The appearances at West Virginia University Institute of Technology and Marshall University are scheduled to precede her address to the Charleston convention of the state's Young Democrats.

The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington and MetroNews are among those with details.

02 April 2008

Election 2008 Shorts

* MetroNews' Talkline hears from Republicans Dan Greear and Hiram Lewis about their respectfully dueling campaigns that seek to take on Democratic Attorney General Darrell McGraw in the fall. With audio.

Highlights include Greear opining on the fate of Chief Deputy Attorney General Fran Hughes, were he to win, and Lewis stating that "I believe that there is a quid pro quo there and I believe that, ultimately, those attorneys that were appointed Special Attorneys General donated to Darrell McGraw and, in return, they received $3.3 million in attorney fees."

(Lewis also said that, despite the sizable uproar over the recent departure of WVU's football coach, his "Pay Up, Rich!" campaign has taken a bath.)

* GOP gubernatorial candidate Russ Weeks tells Talkline that he's "considering filing a lawsuit against the Legislature and the Governor" over the retroactive increases to certain per diem payments in this session's legislative pay raise bill.

Massey Moves to Block Starcher Hearing

Massey Energy Co. has petitioned the state Supreme Court for a writ of prohibition to bar the April 10 hearing scheduled by Justice Larry Starcher for its recusal request targeting him.

As The Associated Press reports, the coal company's filings argue the hearing "would create a precedent that would justify unilateral actions by future justices who wish to conduct business outside the corporate body that is this Court."

To bolster its recusal motion, Massey also alleges that Starcher has persisted in his public comments deriding the company and its chief executive, Don Blankenship.

Also Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case involving Blankenship. Deborah K. May is seeking unemployment benefit from a company that hired her as a personal maid, then assigned her to Blankenship through one of Massey's subsidiaries.

"May's duties began when Blankenship lived in a three-story house in Mingo County," AP reports from the hearing. "Over time, they grew to include a two-cabin complex in Kentucky, a four-story house in West Virginia and the tour bus. The tipping point came when Blankenship announced she was soon to care for his German Shepherd police dog."

May's lawyer, Kathryn Bayless, also alleges "occasional tantrums and physical abuse by Blankenship," the article said. "Blankenship threw food and grabbed May's wrist after delivering the wrong McDonald's order, trashed a closet over an incorrectly hung jacket and demanded a written explanation regarding how she stocked food in one of his houses."

The participating justices appeared unswayed by the argument of the employer, Mate Creek, that May left voluntarily and so does not qualify for benefits. As AP reports:

"The law talks about unilateral change in job duties,'' Justice Robin Davis told (lawyer Eric) Kinder. "I can't believe you can stand there with a straight face and tell us her job duties did not change.''
MetroNews also covered the hearing, and has audio. The Charleston Gazette has articles on both the hearing and the writ targeting Starcher's hearing.

Legislature 2008: Epilogue

At last count, Gov. Joe Manchin had vetoed 12 (corrected figure) of the 246 bills passed by the House and Senate during their recent 60-day regular session:

  • HB 4010 - Removing the limitation on terms for board of library directors;
  • HB 4307 - Relating to bona fide residents wholly or solely owning greyhounds;
  • HB 4407 - Requiring automatic tire chains as standard equipment on all new school buses;
  • HB 4554 - Testing school bus operators every other year;
  • SB 207 - Relating to Deputy Sheriff Retirement System Act;
  • SB 227 - Relating to State Teachers Retirement System (added);
  • SB 242 - Allowing point deduction for certain licensees attending defensive driving class;
  • SB 337 - Eliminating obsolete language concerning Supreme Court clerk;
  • SB 477 - Increasing conservation officers' salaries and length of service;
  • SB 606 - Requiring hiring preference for summer school program positions;
  • SB 638 - Requiring information collection from catalytic converter purchasers;
  • SB 696 - Providing appraisal methods for certain multifamily rental properties.
The list does not include the four bill that lawmakers re-passed after correcting errors highlighted by vetoes during the extended session for the budget.

The reasons for the vetoes vary, and include technical errors, conflicts with other legislation, constitutional concerns and deference to local control. The Associated Press notes some of final vetoes issued by the governor.

Others focus on legislation from the session signed by Manchin this week, or otherwise slated to become law:
  • Public Broadcasting examines one measure that aims to ease rising property tax bills for seniors;
  • The Parkersburg News gauges the local impact of legislation slashing property tax rates on corporate and commercial aircraft.
  • MetroNews looks at the bill tweaking DUI laws (update).

01 April 2008

Maynard, Bastress Trade Barbs

Facing a re-election battle, Supreme Court Chief Justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard let loose on fellow Democratic candidate Bob Bastress during a recent interview with the Charleston Daily Mail editorial board.

"Maynard's ire was prompted by Bastress' continued criticism of the much-discussed photographs of the chief justice with Massey Energy chief Don Blankenship while the two were vacationing on the French Riviera in 2006," the newspaper reported.

"(I)t's a two-way street. If I wanted to attack Professor Bastress, it would be very easy to do," Maynard told the editorial board.

Maynard alleged Bastress was campaigning at the expense of his post at West Virginia University, including "using the law school as his campaign headquarters," the article said.

Bastress sought to rebut those charges, as well as allegations from Maynard of legislation introduced to benefit Bastress' legal work by his wife, Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, the newspaper reported.

"And I won't talk about your personal life. I'll leave that alone," the chief justice was quoted as saying. "Maynard did not elaborate further."

Quote of the Day

"I will not appoint myself. I will not do that."

-- Gov. Joe Manchin, when asked by The Charleston Gazette "if he would appoint himself to the U.S. Senate in the event that ailing Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., is unable to complete his term."

DNR Looking at Cuts in Wake of Bill's Failure

With West Virginia among several states showing declining ranks of hunters and anglers, the state's Division of Natural Resources supported a plan this session that would have offered seniors permanent (instead of annual) hunting and fishing licenses.

The proposed fee was $15, but seniors can now hunt and fish for free. That likely helped kill the bill, though it proposed waiving the fee for those age 65 and older already exempt from licensing requirements.

The Register-Herald of Beckley reports on the reason why DNR wants seniors to hold a license, even a free or discounted one: the number of licenses a state issues determines its share of revenue from federal taxes on fishing gear, hunting firearms and ammunition.

"West Virginia could lose upward of $350,000 by one informal estimate under the Pittman-Robinson Act." the article said.

“It’s as if they don’t exist," DNR chief Frank Jezioro told the newspaper. "So that matching money for their hunting and fishing equipment goes to other states that have a seniors license.”

W.Va. Dems Reaching Out to Independents

For the first time, West Virginia's unaffiliated voters can cast ballots in either major party's primary on May 13.

Following the GOP's lead, the state's majority party has opened their primary, and as The Associated Press' Tom Breen reports, "Democrats expect to draw a large share of those votes because of the close contest for the party's presidential nomination between U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton and U.S. Sen. Barack Obama."

As previously noted, "While Democrats still make up the largest share of voters in West Virginia, independents are steadily growing, with their numbers increasing at a higher rate than voters in either of the major parties," the article said.

Teacher Pension Transfer Plan Begins

Would-be transfers from the state Teachers' Defined Contribution Plan can start mailing in the necessary paperwork Tuesday _ though as The Associated Press learned, about 200 have already done so.

These folks aren't waiting on the benefit projections that state retirement officials have promised to send each of TDC's 18,989 eligible members, meant to help them make educated decisions.

The projections are slated for delivery April 17. The Consolidated Public Retirement Board "also expects to launch a Web site by then that will offer an online benefits calculator and password-protected specifics for each eligible enrollee," AP reports.

The Web site will also feature a tally, updated weekly, of those who have requested to transfer. Their ranks have to reach 65 percent _ 12,343 enrollees _ for the transfers to occur. If they hit 75 percent _ 14,242 enrollees _ they face lowered payments for ensuring full benefits under the Teachers' Retirement System.

"The timetable focuses on May 5 as 'transfer day,'' when TDC members can hand in their forms at their schools or other workplaces," the article said. "Forms must by postmarked or handed in to supervisors by May 12, with final results certified to the board by May 31."

31 March 2008

W.Va.: McCain vs. Obama/Clinton

Some of the nation's leading political analysts talked to The Associated Press about the presidential race in West Virginia.

Charlie Cook, of The Cook Political Report, predicts the Mountain State will remain red.

"I don't think either of them would be competitive in West Virginia," Cook told AP. "To be honest, I doubt that between Labor Day and Election Day, you'll see much action there."

But Stuart Rothenberg, of The Rothenberg Political Report, sees presumptive GOP nominee John McCain as vulnerable in West Virginia, particularly on pocketbook issues.

"If the economy is bad enough, if there's enough concern about jobs, it will be about whether McCain is aggressive enough in dealing with issues like the mortgage mess and unemployment," Rothenberg told AP. "I think the Democrats will and can compete."

AP also looked at voting records, the state's demographics and funds raised in-state by the respective campaigns.

The Charleston Daily Mail parallels the upcoming Democratic Primary with its historic 1960 counterpart. In a separate article, the Daily Mail notes the increase of unaffiliated voters _ who are now able to vote in either party's primary.

W.Va. Casino Workers on Strike

About 200 cashiers, money counters and video lottery remain on the picket line outside Mountaineer Casino Racetrack & Resort.

Health benefits are the sticking point, according to one union official who spoke to the Weirton Daily Times. ""Our union members are paying for 37.7 percent of their health care coverage," Tony Helfer, secretary-treasurer of Local 23, told the newspaper. "The management employees at Mountaineer, who make a much higher salary, only pay 18 percent of their health care."

Local 23 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union represents about 9% of staff, and began its strike Saturday.

Mountaineer Spokesperson Tamara Pettit says the track is open and operating with managers stepping in to fill the roles of those workers who are now off the job," MetroNews reports. " She says the company wants to keep talking."

MetroNews also has audio.