12 June 2009

Byrd's Condition Spurs GOP Questions

The Charleston Daily Mail invites various state GOP officials to weigh in on the continued absence of U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va.

The Associated Press reported Monday that "hospitalized in mid-May with a high temperature," history's longest-serving U.S. senator "is not expected back at work this week" as he continues to recover from a staph infection he had since developed.

The Daily Mail quotes several Republicans who "are questioning why his staff hasn't been more forthcoming with details on his condition," and "say his constituents deserve to know a little more. After all, they've supported Byrd all of these years."

The 91-year-old has missed a series of votes, including Thursday's 79-17 passage of historic legislation that AP reports would give the federal government "broad authority to determine how cigarettes will be made, marketed and sold."

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., voted for that measure, which could reach President Obama after a final House vote Friday.

Federal Judge OK's Politicking in W.Va. Parks

Political parties can seek petition signatures in West Virginia's state parks, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge John P. Bailey found that the Division of Natural Resources violated free speech rights with its policy requiring written permission for such petition drives, The Associated Press reports.

"The Charlottesville, Va.-based Rutherford Institute filed the lawsuit in 2008 on behalf of the Constitution Party of West Virginia," the article said. "Party members wanted to use a National Hunting and Fishing Day event at Stonewall Jackson Lake State Park in Lewis County to collect signatures to put their candidates on West Virginia’s ballot."

Quote of the Day

"We were on the cutting edge on that issue, and then the knife got dulled by those dumb-asses in G.O."

-- House Health and Human Resources Chairman Don Perdue, D-Wayne, referring to this session's calorie count bill and its death at the hands of a Government Organization committee gorged with Tudor's Biscuits and other fast food, as quoted by The Charleston Gazette.

Obama Unveils MTR Policy; W.Va. Reacts

The Obama administration plans to "eliminate the expedited reviews that have made it easier for mining companies to blast off Appalachian mountaintops and discard the rubble into valleys where streams flow," The Associated Press reports.

An agreement reached by three federal agencies "also includes changes to tighten federal oversight and environmental screening" of mountaintop removal mining in six states, including West Virginia.

The AP article notes that such mines "in the states where the practice is most used - West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee - produce nearly 130 million tons of coal each year, or about 14 percent of the coal that produces electricity, and employ about 14,000 people."

The Charleston Gazette reports that "the Obama proposals did not please critics from either side."

"Coal industry officials said the initiative creates more uncertainty about the hoops companies must jump through to open new mines, while environmental groups objected that more concrete steps were not taken to immediately slow the destructive mining practice," that article said.

MetroNews similarly reports that "none of the interested parties in the controversial mountaintop removal mining process appear satisfied" with Thursday's announcement.

Gov. Joe Manchin and his environmental protection secretary issued a joint statement reacting to the proposals, as did U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd.

11 June 2009

More Tough Sledding for W.Va. Muni Elections

This week's municipal elections saw the polls open in Bruceton Mills, Preston County (pop. 74) for just two hours Tuesday, The Associated Press reports.

Mayor Lisa Loughry told AP's Vicki Smith that the town lacked enough volunteers for the state-required 13 hours.

"According to state code, poll workers cannot be office holders or related to anybody on the ballot. That pretty much limits it," Loughry said. "Then you have people who work. Plus, this is a community of older people who can't sit at the polls all day."

But, the shortened hours still allowed "21 of the town's 30 registered voters cast ballots in uncontested elections for mayor and council," the article said. (Loughry did not run.)

The article also cites legislation passed during this year's regular session "to allow towns of less than 2,000 to conduct early voting by mail."

During the 2007 municipal elections, just 215 Morgantown residents showed up to vote with the mayor's office and seven council seats on the ballot.

Indicted Company Major Player in W.Va. Lottery System

The Associated Press follows up on the 48-count federal indictment against ex-lawmaker Joe C. Ferrell and his Southern Amusement Co. by focusing on the charges that involve the West Virginia Lottery.

The article cites the company's status as one of the largest providers of "limited" video lottery machines in the state:

The Logan-based Southern Amusement is licensed to lease 675 machines, the maximum allowed for any single business, to bars and clubs that offer the state's "limited'' video lottery.

Of the 37 operators allowed to lease machines to retailers, only one other has as many permits. About 8,100 of the poker- and slot-style lottery machines were hosted at 1,628 bars and clubs across the state last month.

The indictment puts Ferrell "atop an illegal gambling racket that began in West Virginia in mid-1995, when he bought Southern Amusement, and later extended into Kentucky this decade," the article said.

The article also explains that "West Virginia began offering video lottery machines in licensed bars and clubs in 2002, after outlawing similar, privately owned devices found at thousands of locations statewide and widely believed to be paying out illegally. Southern Amusement provided such "gray'' machines until they were banned, and the case's main racketeering count accuses Ferrell of a hand in that illegal gambling."

Five of the counts allege Ferrell bribed a Lottery investigator who serviced his machines while both on the state clock and after-hours, and refrained for issuing citations against both Southern Amusement and its customers for Lottery violations.

The investigator then mailed four disclosure statements over the course of as many years, falsely denying she had received any gifts from any Lottery licensees, the indictment alleges.

AP and The Charleston Gazette report that the Lottery Commission plans to discuss the recently unsealed indictment at its meeting next week.

10 June 2009

Quote of the Day

"It is unfortunate that the Supreme Court's ruling is being reported as a matter of corporate influence and judicial review."

-- Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, responding to this week's U.S. Supreme Court decision against his company, as reported by The Associated Press.

They Voted for You: Clunkers

West Virginia's U.S. House delegation helped pass a "cash for clunkers" bill that, as The Associated Press reports, "aims to boost new auto sales by allowing consumers to turn in their gas-guzzling cars and trucks for vouchers worth up to $4,500 toward more fuel-efficient vehicles."

Reps. Alan Mollohan, D-1st; Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd; and Nick Rahall, D-3rd, all voted for the Consumer Assistance to Recycle and Save Act in the 298-119 roll call.

"Supporters pushed for the measure to stimulate car sales and increase the fleet of fuel-efficient vehicles on the nation's highways," AP reports. "The auto industry has sought the incentives after months of poor auto sales. In May, overall sales were 34 percent lower than a year ago."

But to opponents, "the bill failed to include incentives for used vehicles and represented an artificial incentive for the industry," the article said.

09 June 2009

Ex-Lawmaker Indicted on 48 Counts

Former Delegate Joe C. Ferrell, D-Logan, has been indicted on 48 federal county that allege such offenses as "bribery, vote buying and running illegal gambling rings in West Virginia and Kentucky," The Associated Press and others report.

A number of the charges involves Southern Amusement Co., Ferrell''s video lottery machine leasing business.

The indictment, handed up last week but unsealed Monday, is not Ferrell's first brush with the law, AP reports:

Ferrell had served three terms in the Legislature when he pleaded guilty in 1992 to illegal campaign spending. He had promised not to seek office again as part of his agreement with prosecutors. That proved non-binding because he had been convicted of only a misdemeanor, and he ran again in 1998 and won.

During another four-term stint as a delegate, the FBI raided Southern Amusement in June 2005. Later that year, federal prosecutors named him a "cooperating witness" in a vote-buying conspiracy case that successfully targeted then-Sheriff John Mendez and other Democratic officials on election fraud charges.

Others with coverage include The Charleston Gazette, which offers a copy of the indictment, and MetroNews.

The Impact of Benjamin's Forced Recusal (Updated)

Following up on Monday's 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court "that faults state Justice Brent Benjamin for not recusing himself from a case involving a generous campaign supporter," The Associated Press reports that the ruling "may aid a pending review of West Virginia's court system, but legal experts differ on its overall effect."

Groups such as the Justice at Stake Campaign, which weighed in on the case's prevailing side, welcomed the ruling as "a critical first step," said Bert Brandenburg, its executive director. "But states that elect judges must get to work now, to keep campaign cash out of our courts of law."

However, others observe that the ruling may prove too case-specific.

"If the people who are hostile to judicial elections are able to expand the decision, it would making have judicial elections very difficult, but as written this decision is extremely narrow and seems only to apply to the most extreme situation," said lawyer James Bopp, who filed a brief on behalf of the James Madison Center for Free Speech in support of the losing side.

AP also notes that the ruling comes just as "Gov. Joe Manchin commissioned the latest in a series of studies of the state's court system."

"Today's Supreme Court decision is one more piece of information that needs to be considered in making recommendations about our judicial system and any reforms that the commission may recommend," Manchin spokesman Matt Turner told AP.

Update: Coverage of and reaction to Monday's ruling has been national in scope, with numerous major media outlets reporting and opining on the outcome.

Among them is the Law Blog of The Wall Street Journal, which posted thusly: "We checked in with assorted and sundry smart people to get their view on the Massey Coal ruling. The consensus reaction, it seems: happiness."

Update II: The WSJ's editorial writers are less thrilled.

08 June 2009

U.S. Supreme Court: Benjamin Should Have Recused Self from Massey Case

By a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that "that elected judges must step aside from cases when large campaign contributions from interested parties create the appearance of bias," The Associated Press reports.

"The West Virginia case involved more than $3 million spent by the chief executive of Massey Energy Co. to help elect state Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin," the article said. "At the same time, Massey was appealing a verdict, which now totals $82.7 million with interest, in a dispute with a local coal company. Benjamin refused to step aside from the case, despite repeated requests, and was part of a 3-2 decision to overturn the verdict."

"Not every campaign contribution by a litigant or attorney creates a probability of bias that requires a judge's recusal, but this is an exceptional case," AP quotes Justice Anthony Kennedy as saying in his opinion for the court.

Keeping Money for a Rainy Day in W.Va.

West Virginia is among a dozen states that seeks to maintain a "rainy day"fund that equals 10 percent of its general revenues. But as The Associated Press reports, some Republican lawmakers have been questioning both the size of the Mountain State's emergency reserves and its potential uses.

Gov. Joe Manchin and fellow Democrats who control the Legislature have been faulted for failing to tap the fund for the recently passed state budget, or to shore up the unemployment compensation program.

The article cites the National Conference of State Legislatures, which opines that "budget experts and observers debate the amount states should accumulate in their budget stabilization funds... Suggested levels can vary according to individual state circumstances, specific economic conditions or access to atypical revenue sources, such as vast mineral resources."

AP also reports that "the recession is sorely testing the states' target reserve levels, according to this month's Fiscal Survey of the States from the National Governors Association and the National Association of State Budget Officers."

"All five of West Virginia's neighbors were among the 23 states that relied on rainy day funds to ensure their current budgets balanced, the survey shows," the article said. "Fifteen states will tap those reserves for their upcoming budgets. But just four surrounding states can take that step: Kentucky all but exhausted its fund to aid this year's spending."

Obama Appoints Critic of W.Va. Policy to Health Care Post

The Obama administration's new director of the federal Center for Medicaid and State Operations had headed one of several groups critical of West Virginia's "redesign" of its Medicaid program for the poor, The Associated Press reports.

Cindy Mann has been appointed to lead an agency that "wields tremendous power, developing policies and procedures and evaluating the effectiveness of state agencies that run Medicaid programs," the article said.

Mann had been executive director of Georgetown University's Center for Children and Families, which last year estimated that "93 percent of children eligible in the state for the Mountain Health Choices Plan faced loss of some coverage," AP reports.

AP's Tom Breen notes that "at the time, state Medicaid officials slammed the report, calling it a rehash of old information and dismissing its criticism as off the mark."

But with other foes of the plan to modify Medicaid "excited" by the pick, Manchin administration officials "say they hope Mann's leadership will help give the program a chance to work as it was designed," Breen writes.