02 July 2009

Happy New Year, West Virginia

New fiscal year, that is. West Virginia is among all but a handful of states that start their budget years on July 1.

The Associated Press reports that the Mountain State emerged from the previous, recession-plagued year with "a trio of positive signs for state government’s finances:" a slight general revenue surplus, lottery revenues on track to at least meet projections, and rebounding Wall Street investments.

But the article continues that continuing economic troubles and other factors "overshadow each fiscal indicator."

AP reported earlier on the 2009 legislation that took effect July 1. Those new laws include "Gov. Joe Manchin's proposal to boost alternative and renewable energy sources."

West Virginia also received some bad, but not necessarily unexpected, numbers to kick off the new fiscal year. As AP, MetroNews and Public Broadcasting (with audio) report, "a new national study calls West Virginia the third-fattest state in the country."

01 July 2009

W.Va. Auditor Scam Suspect Arraigned

West Virginia's was not the only state government hit by an international fraud ring, but the money it unwittingly gave to the scammers is less likely to be recovered, The Associated Press reports.

Federal prosecutors provided new details in the case Tuesday while arguing for the continued jailing of Angella Muthoni Chegge-Kraszeski, "the sole suspect so far arrested and identified in the alleged scheme," the article said.

A U.S. magistrate judge agreed, after setting the 33-year-old's trial for Aug. 31.

As AP reports, the scam allegedly sought to dupe officials into rerouting payments meant for businesses that provide goods and services to their state's agencies and programs.

The indictment alleges that they succeeded in West Virginia, where they tricked the auditor's office into sending them $919,000 due a vendor.

Prosecutors alleged Tuesday that more than $3 million had been diverted as a result of the scheme, and that it had also targeted Florida, Kansas and Massachusetts.

But the money scammed elsewhere apparently did not reach Kenya, as nearly all the West Virginia funds had. Two weeks before her arrest, Chegge-Kraszeski found she could not access some of the dummy bank accounts set up to funnel defrauded money, her lawyer said.

Federal prosecutors credited the financial crimes unit of the North Carolina state Bureau of Investigation with developing the case. Their officers arrested Chegge-Kraszeski in May.

Toll Hike Looming for W.Va. Turnpike (Updated)

The parent agency of the West Virginia Turnpike is poised to increase toll rates on the 88-mile roadway, The Associated Press reports.

AP's Tom Breen sets the stage for Wednesday's meeting of the Parkways, Economic Development and Tourism Authority on the subject.

(Update: Breen reports that the authority voted unanimously to hike the tolls, effective Aug. 1. As expected, they will rise "for passenger vehicles from $1.25 to $2 and for large trucks from $4.25 to $6.75."

The updated article also said that "steep discounts were approved for motorists who purchase EZ Pass commuter passes. They will pay $1.30 for passenger cars and $5.40 for large trucks.")

The agency held several public hearings on the toll rate question, after releasing an engineering report and projections on traffic and toll revenues as well as other information to get the ball rolling.

"The authority said toll increases are needed to keep the 88-mile highway between Charleston and Princeton from falling into further disrepair," Breen writes, adding that area residents and their elected officials "say the toll discriminates against southern West Virginia residents. They oppose any increase."

Both The Charleston Gazette and The Register-Herald of Beckley reported that toll hike critics were "insulted" that the authority is holding Wednesday's meeting in Charleston instead of the Beckley area as originally planned.

Others previewing Wednesday's meeting include the Charleston and Beckley newspapers, as well as MetroNews.

30 June 2009

Byrd Released from Hospital

The office of U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd announced Tuesday that the ailing 91-year-old Democrat "has been released from the hospital and is at his West Virginia home recuperating from a more-than monthlong illness," The Associated Press reports.

The statement also said that Byrd is "continuing physical therapy as he recovers from a staph infection he contracted while hospitalized for another infection," that "he's looking forward to celebrating the nation's birthday with his family," AP reports.

They Will Vote for You: Cap and Trade before U.S. Senate

West Virginia's U.S. senators are sizing up the federal cap and trade legislation that narrowly passed the House last week, and without the support of their Mountain State counterparts in that chamber.

Aides to the ailing Sen. Robert C. Byrd issued a statement Monday that said the senior Democrat "'cannot support' the American Clean Energy and Security Act 'in its present form,'"The Charleston Gazette reports. "Sen. Jay Rockefeller's office also issued a statement that said Rockefeller 'continues to have serious concerns about the House bill.'"

The News and Sentinel of Parkersburg also checks in with Byrd and Rockefeller, D-W.Va., on the climate bill issue, as does The Register-Herald of Beckley.

The Beckley newspaper as well as MetroNews and Public Broadcasting (respective audio here and here), also report on a new group rallying against the measure.

Southern West Virginians for Coal "is trying to stop legislation from putting a price tag on carbon emissions," the latter reports, adding that the group is getting "financial support from the West Virginia Conservative Foundation."

"The idea started with concerned citizens at the Tax Day Tea parties, a protest against government spending," the Public Broadcasting item continues.

A photo with the Beckley article shows that supporters include Greg Thomas, perhaps best known as a political operative for Massey Energy Co. CEO Don Blankenship.

Lynndie England Speaks

Having achieved worldwide infamy while still in her early 20s, "the woman who became the grinning face of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal spends most of her days confined to the four walls of her home," The Associated Press reports.

AP spoke to Lynndie England as the ex-Army reservist, single mother and West Virginia resident prepares to launch a book touring promoting her new authorized biography.

Out of prison now for more than two years and appealing her conviction in the scandal, England "hasn't landed a job in numerous tries," the article said. "When one restaurant manager considered hiring her, other employees threatened to quit."

AP also spoke to the lead prosecutor in her case, who rejects attempts by England and others to portray her as a scapegoat and has a book of his own in the works. The article also features England's biographer, Gary Winkler.

"Some days I liked her. Some days I hated her," Winkler told AP. "Some days I thought she should be in prison still, and some days I felt sorry for her."

Massey Lawsuit vs. W.Va. Supreme Court Resumes

This month's U.S. Supreme Court ruling addressing judicial recusal has prompted a federal judge to reactivate a lawsuit on the topic filed against West Virginia's high court, The Associated Press reports.

Both cases also involve Massey Energy Co., which filed the pending lawsuit and found itself on the losing end of the June 8 decision.

The suit asks U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver Jr. "to declare as unconstitutional the state court's policy governing how judges may recuse themselves from hearing cases," the article said. "Lawyers for the Richmond, Va.-based company argue that the court's standard violates the right to due process guaranteed by the 14th Amendment."

Copenhaver has asked both sides to weigh in on how to proceed, and has extended the deadline for responding from Monday to Friday as requested by Massey.

The article notes that some of Massey's allies in the U.S. Supreme Court case defended West Virginia's recusal rule and argued against "second-guessing by the federal courts regarding such state-crafted policies."

Lawyers representing seven states, led by Alabama Attorney General Troy King, filed one "friend of the court" brief that said that "the States are uniquely well-situated to regulate recusal practice in their own courts and have been both vigorous and innovative in doing so," AP reported.

29 June 2009

Capito Stock Sales Eyed

The Plain Dealer of Cleveland included Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, among "several members of Congress who oversee the banking industry" and who "were grabbing up or dumping bank stocks" while "financial markets tumbled and the government worked to stave off panic by pumping billions of dollars into banks last fall."

After reviewing financial disclosure reports, the newspaper concluded that "anticipating bargains or profits or just trying to unload before the bottom fell out, these members of the House Financial Services Committee or brokers on their behalf were buying and selling stocks including Bank of America and Citigroup -- some of the very corporations their committee would later rap for greed."

Capito merits a mention because her stockbroker husband "sold more than $100,000 in Citigroup stock in several transactions late last year. His brokerage firm was owned by Citigroup and his compensation included Citigroup stock."

"A Capito spokesman said the House Ethics Committee gave her verbal approval to join the committee despite her husband's job," the newspaper reported.

Manchin on the Job

The Associated Press checked the whereabouts of most of the nation's governor's last week, in the wake of the bombshell that South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford "disappeared on a seven-day trip to see a woman in Argentina with whom he was having an affair."

Where did AP find West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin? "(A)t Charleston's Yeager Airport waiting to greet the first arriving flight of a new air service from Florida," the report said.

They Voted For You: Cap and Trade

West Virginia's three U.S. House members all opposed the American Clean Energy and Security Act when it narrowly passed to the Senate late Friday.

U.S. Reps. Alan Mollohan, D-1st; Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd; and Nick Rahall, D-3rd, each voted against the bill in the 219-212 roll call.

"The complex bill would require the U.S. to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020 and by 83 percent by midcentury," The Associated Press reports. "Opponents complain about the costs and say some industries will simply move their operations and jobs out of the U.S. to countries that don't control greenhouse-gas emissions."

The AP article reflects other arguments for and against the bill, while another reports that additions to the bill "would actually result in the nation burning more coal a decade from now than it does today."

With these provisions, the House bill "gives utilities a financial incentive to keep burning coal and buy 'offsets' to make up for the resulting emissions," that article said, and "also restricts a legal tool that environmentalists have relied on to block the construction of dozens of coal-fired power plants."

That article notes further that the bill as amended "spends billions of dollars on research into so-called 'clean coal' technology, which seeks to scrub the carbon emissions from coal before they make their way into the atmosphere, then store those emissions underground."

Analyzing Friday's vote, The National Journal reports that "thirty of the 121 Democrats from states that generate at least 40 percent of their power from coal voted against the bill; just 14 of the 134 Democrats from states that are less reliant on coal joined them in opposition. That means about one-in-four of the coal state Democrats voted no, compared to only a little over one-in-10 of everyone else."

That report also observed that "of the 49 House Democrats who represent districts that McCain carried last year, fully 29 voted against the measure... Similarly, seven of the eight Republicans who supported the measure represent districts that backed Obama last November."