23 May 2008

Appeal Refused in Record Verdict Gas Royalty Case

In an active day for the justices, West Virginia's Supreme Court has let stand a nearly $405 million verdict awarded in a Roane County class-action lawsuit, MetroNews reports.

In what may be a record verdict for the state, the judgment involves around 8,000 plaintiffs who sued over natural gas royalty payments. Punitive damages account for two-thirds of the verdict.

The defendants include NiSource. "President and CEO Robert C. Skaggs, Jr. said the company is surprised and disappointed with the West Virginia Court's decision not to hear its appeal," MetroNews reported.

"The Court's decision to not even address the substance of an appeal in a case of this significance, particularly in light of the $270 million in punitive damages awarded at the trial court level, is unprecedented and contrary to the most basic principles of fairness. We firmly believe in the merits of our position and will continue to vigorously pursue our arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court," he said in a statement.

Supreme Court Lets Stand $240 Million Judgment vs. Massey

The state Supreme Court has unanimously refused Massey Energy Co.'s petition seeking to appeal a $240 million judgment won against it by Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp. in a contract dispute, The Associated Press reports.

"Richmond, Va.-based Massey said Friday it plans to continue challenging the verdict won by Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel in a contract dispute," the AP article said. Massey's statement is here.

"Retired Circuit Court Judge Frank Jolliffe participated in place of Chief Justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard, who disqualified himself after photos surfaced showing him vacationing with Massey chief Don Blankenship," writes AP Business Writer Tim Huber.

Home Rule

West Virginia has one of the most centralized governments in the country. That's why Bridgeport, Charleston, Huntington and Wheeling jumped at the chance to join a five-year "home rule" pilot project.

As The Associated Press reports, "Bridgeport can now participate in public school projects, increase some licensing fees and issue its own tax increment financing. Huntington can impose an occupational tax and Charleston, a health-care provider tax, among other things. Those two cities and Wheeling also were given greater flexibility to address dilapidated property."

Public Broadcasting also highlights (with audio) the experiment granting these cities modest additional powers.

Further details about their communities' approach to home rule come from the Herald-Dispatch of Huntington, The Intelligencer of Wheeling and The Charleston Gazette.

Gov's Helicopter Makes Emergency Landing

A warning light on his console prompted Gov. Joe Manchin's pilot to cut short a scheduled Thursday flight to Raleigh County, The Associated Press reports.

"Manchin spokeswoman Lara Ramsburg says the helicopter landed safely at 10:30 a.m. at Sharon Dawes Elementary School in eastern Kanawha County," AP's article said. "Manchin then was taken by car to his speaking engagements."

WCHS-TV was the first with the story, and has video.

Obesity in W.Va.

While the number of overweight West Virginia 5th graders has grown this year, it's partly because the ranks in the heavier and more serious category of obese declined in that age group, The Associated Press reports.

“It’s at least a move in the right direction,” Dr. William Neal, director of the CARDIAC Project, told AP health writer Tom Breen.

The numbers are a rare glimmer of hope in the third-fattest state in the country, but isolating which factors are contributing to the drop in obesity may not be easy," Breen writes.

22 May 2008

Election 2008: President

The Associated Press finds that "Hillary Clinton recaptured the month-to-month fundraising lead and Barack Obama's contributions slumped sharply among West Virginians before she trounced him in the state's presidential primary."

The Charleston Daily Mail, meanwhile, reports on last week's appearance by capital city Mayor Danny Jones on a Los Angeles-based radio show "to defend West Virginia from negative depictions that came out of Hillary Clinton's defeat of Barack Obama."

DaughterGate Update

The Charleston Gazette picks up on lingering resentment over the role played in the West Virginia University degree scandal by two now-former faculty administrators.

"WVU Provost Gerald Lang and Stephen Sears, dean of the College of Business and Economics, resigned last month after an investigation found them most at fault for the award of an unearned master's degree to Heather Bresch, Gov. Joe Manchin's daughter."

"There's some strong sentiment that their stepping down into these cushy teaching positions [where salaries are] considerably higher than what most people make is no punishment at all," English professor Mark Brazaitis told The Gazette. "It is a slap on the wrist."

Public Broadcasting revisits the false information given to the press when questions first arose regarding Bresch's degree.

"The official response from WVU was that Bresch did earn the degree and the records discrepancy was related to an unpaid $50 graduation fee," the report said. "As we all know now, this statement was not true." With audio.

The State Journal also weighs in on the affair, while the Charleston Daily Mail speculates on the differing severance package options for embattled WVU President Mike Garrison.

Update: AP reports on three WVU professors who say they are leaving "partly in protest" over the situation there. The Gazette and MetroNews also have stories, with the latter offering audio of one of the departing faculty as well.

They Voted For You: Farm Bill (Updated)

U.S. Reps. Alan Mollohan, D-1st, Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, and Nick Rahall, D-3rd, all helped the House override President Bush's veto of the recent farm bill.

"The legislation includes election-year subsidies for farmers and food stamps for the poor, spending that lawmakers could promote when they are back in their districts over the Memorial Day weekend," The Associated Press reports.

The 316-108 vote overcoming the president's objection came just hours after his veto message.

Bush concluded the bill was "too expensive and gave too much money to wealthy farmers when farm incomes are high," the AP article said. "With Bush at record lows in the polls in the waning months of his term, it was fellow Republicans who joined with majority Democrat in rejecting the veto. GOP lawmakers are anxious about their own prospects less than six months from the Election Day."

The Senate is expected to follow suit, AP said.

Update: The House will have to pass a new bill, weather a second veto and try for another override because of an error in the original legislation, AP reports.

"Congress had omitted a 34-page section of the bill when lawmakers sent the massive measure to the White House," the report said. "Democrats hoped to pass the entire bill, again, on Thursday under expedited rules usually reserved for unopposed legislation. Lawmakers also probably will have to pass an extension of current farm law, which expires Friday."

"Republican leaders called for a farm bill do-over," AP also noted. "The White House, almost gleefully, seized on the fumble and said the mixup could give Congress time to fix the 'bloated' bill."

21 May 2008

Wood County House Race Tied

Wood County's canvass of the Democratic primary has resulted in a tie between Iris McCrady and Tim Fittro for the third slot in its 10th House District, The Parkersburg News reports.

McCrady was head by just three votes before the canvass. "Of the 190 (ballots) added in following the canvass, 183 were overruled provisional ballots and seven were absentee, which were received by the start of the canvass and so are eligible to be counted,” Wood County Clerk Jamie Six told the newspaper.

While the provisional ballots have been resolved, "the hand count is expected to continue into Wednesday," the article noted. "The board cannot declare canvass results until that hand count is completed. McCrady picked up 24 additional votes and Fittro gained 27 after the canvass count."

Either candidate can request a recount once the hand count is complete. "If neither candidate asks for a recount, the board certifies the results and the tie would go to the Democratic executive committee for a decision," the newspaper reported.

Lawmakers Get Turnpike Update

The Associated Press reports that "while cost-cutting and downsizing have freed up money, the agency that runs the West Virginia Turnpike still has barely more than one-third of what it needs for road improvements."

The audit presented to legislators during their interim meetings also found that the agency "has streamlined costs by eliminating perks such as free health insurance and annual 'recognition award' bonuses for its employees," The Charleston Gazette reports.

The Register-Herald of Beckley also details the report's findings.

EPA Targets Mollohan Group

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Inspector General "has questioned nearly half of the $6.7 million the Canaan Valley Institute spent from five federal grants over the last four years," The Charleston Gazette reports.

The institute is one of several championed by Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-1st, whose federal earmarks for such efforts have come under scrutiny in recent years.

"Inspector General auditors found that the institute reported costs for services outside the scope of one agreement, did not comply with contract terms, and improperly used EPA funds to match another federal program," the article said.

Mollohan issued a statement through a spokesman to the The Gazette. "It is my understanding that this process is ongoing, and it is up to CVI and EPA to resolve their differences over these matters," it said.

20 May 2008

Health Care in The Mountain State

Legislative leaders have enlisted a Emory University health policy professor to help them draft a "'road map’ within a year that they hope will provide basic coverage to all West Virginians," The Associated Press reports.

"To design the plan, they’re creating four working groups with members ranging from doctors to labor union officials," AP's Tom Breen explains. "The groups will tackle the costs associated with treating chronic health problems like diabetes or heart disease, wellness and prevention, cost cutting and technology."

As for the current terrain, "state and federal plans like Medicaid and Medicare already provide health insurance coverage for roughly half of West Virginia’s 1.8 million residents, with roughly 700,000 covered by private plans and the rest without insurance," the AP article said.

Lawmakers also promised that this approach "won’t result in the creation of a new agency or major program, or require the expenditure of huge sums," Breen reported.

The Charleston Gazette
, MetroNews and The Register-Herald of Beckley also covered Monday's announcement.

19 May 2008

Byrd Endorses Obama

"Barack Obama is a noble-hearted patriot and humble Christian, and he has my full faith and support," West Virginia's senior senator said in a Monday statement.

Reports from The Associated Press, The Charleston Gazette, MetroNews, the Charleston Daily Mail and the Herald-Dispatch of Huntington.

Election 2008: Legislature

The Associated Press looks at the primary election defeats of six incumbent House Democrats, including some in leadership, and sets the stage for November.

MetroNews talks to Mike Ross, one of several former lawmakers seeking to rejoin the Legislature this year. The Randolph County Democrat is heading toward a rematch with Sen. Clark Barnes, the Republican who beat him in 2004. With audio.

DaughterGate Update

Several students and faculty refused to shake the hand of President Mike Garrison at West Virginia University's weekend commencement ceremonies, according to reports by The Associated Press, MetroNews, The Charleston Gazette and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The Charleston Daily Mail reports that Walker Machinery Co. President Steve Walker has resigned from WVU's College of Business and Economics' advisory board "because of the master's degree scandal involving the governor's daughter."

The Intelligencer of Wheeling interviewed Garrison, offering both a story and the complete Q-and-A.

Update: AP reports that WVU's Board of Governors "is holding an emergency meeting to discuss personnel issues" Monday afternoon. An agenda, such as it is, is here.

Update II: The board met for three-plus hours in executive session before deciding "they likely won’t take any action against embattled President Mike Garrison until next month,"AP reports. "Garrison is due to present a corrective action plan June 6 to the board, along with any other response from his administration to a master’s degree scandal involving the governor’s daughter."

Also... As AP notes, Gov. Joe Manchin issued a statement Monday that declares that "the WVU Board of Governors members are not under my control" and that "I consider this matter one that should be decided by the members of the Board of Governors based upon their own insights and beliefs and information." MetroNews, among others, has the release.