24 July 2009

Massey Dropping Lawsuit vs W.Va. Supreme Court

Massey Energy Co. has agreed to the dismissal of its recently reactivated federal lawsuit against West Virginia's Supreme Court, The Associated Press and others report.

Massey had targeted the court's recusal procedure, while seeking the removal of then-Justice Larry Starcher from hearing cases involving the coal producer.

"Starcher was known for often harsh criticism of Massey chief Don Blankenship," the AP article noted ."At various times over the years, Starcher called Blankenship 'stupid' and a 'clown.'"

The presiding judge had recently given both sides until July 31 to weigh in on whether last month's ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court's -- which ordered Justice Brent Benjamin's recusal from an appeal involving Massey -- was relevent to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit had been on hold while the U.S. justices reviewed the Benjamin recusal matter. As earlier noted, Massey had enlisted allies in the U.S. Supreme Court appeal who "defended West Virginia's recusal rule and argued against 'second-guessing by the federal courts regarding such state-crafted policies.'"

"Richmond, Va.-based Massey says in a statement Friday that the retirement of former Justice Larry Starcher last year prompted it to give up the suit," AP reported.

Others with coverage include MetroNews and The Charleston Gazette.

Judge Plans to Stay on Massey Case

A Mingo County Circuit judge has rejected as untrue or moot the various arguments raised by plaintiffs seeking his recusal from a mining pollution case against a subsidiary of Massey Energy Co., The Associated Press and others report.

Judge Michael Thornsbury said he's not friends with Massey CEO Don Blankenship, as the plaintiffs had alleged. They had also cited Thornsbury's choice of his business partner and former campaign manager to oversee a fund set up in the case, but the judge said the man turned down the post.

"Thornsbury also denied giving Massey preferential treatment, noting he compelled Blankenship to give a deposition in the case," the AP article said. "Nor has Blankenship contributed to his election campaign, Thornsbury said, although lawyers on both sides of the case have done so."

The Charleston Gazette quotes from Thornsbury's seven-page response to the recusal request. "This court has presided over hundreds of cases involving this defendant in the past thirteen years, including similar lawsuits involving hundreds of plaintiffs which proceeded to jury verdicts. This court has no relationship with the defendant which would necessitate recusal."

23 July 2009

Manchin Not Ready to Convene Special Pension Session

After reports that Gov. Joe Manchin is weighing a special legislation session to help cities with yawning pension funding gaps, the governor's office tells The Register-Herald that he must see some consensus first.

“We’ve not even received a draft of that plan yet, so it’s too early to suggest there’s going to be a special session,” spokesman Matt Turner told the Beckley newspaper. “There’s still a lot of vetting to do.”

A plan being bandied about by some legislators and the West Virginia Municipal League calls for a 40-year amortization of the debt and the creation of a newer pension fund for new hires with built-in safeguards against future liabilities," the article explains. "Yet, until everyone involved in finding a solution gets on the same page, even talk of a special session in August or September is premature."

W.Va. Lottery Does Better Than Expected

As reported after West Virginia ended its 2009 budget year June 30, state lottery revenues appeared on track to beat a forecast that predicted a dip in sales from the previous year.

The Lottery Commission fielded the final numbers Wednesday, and learned that sales topped the projection by a slight $20 million, to total $1.49 billion, The Associated Press and others report.

"State government's share of the resulting revenues topped $616.6 million, while West Virginia's counties and municipalities together reaped nearly $16 million," the article said. "But an overall decline in lottery sales that began in mid-2007 continued. And despite the better-than-forecast showing, that trend is expected to persist with sales dipping by an estimated $104 million during the fiscal year that began July 1."

AP also offers a rundown of the state's four racetracks, which provide the bulk of lottery revenues, while noting both the growing competition from Pennsylvania and the approaching threat from Ohio.

Most of those who gamble at West Virginia's four tracks travel from other states, including those two neighbors. The Charleston Daily Mail earlier questioned whether casino-style table games and resort-level amenities would give the tracks much of an edge with Ohio gamblers once their home state opens slot halls.

Also reporting on the FY09 figures include The Charleston Gazette and MetroNews. The latter offers audio from Lottery Director John Musgrave.

He Voted For You: Concealed Guns

U.S. Sen Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., voted against an amendment that aimed to "to allow citizens who have concealed carry permits from the State in which they reside to carry concealed firearms in another State that grants concealed carry permits."

A recuperating Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., did not take part in the 58-39 roll call, which requires at least 60 votes for the amendment to prevail.

"Opponents said it would force states with tough concealed weapon permit restrictions to let in gun carriers from states that give permits to convicted criminals, minors and people with no firearms training," The Associated Press reports. "The chief sponsor of the measure, South Dakota Republican John Thune, said it would reduce crime by allowing law-abiding citizens such as truck drivers to protect themselves as they travel from one state to another."

The National Rifle Association's executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, told AP that those who opposed it "will see it reflected in support from their constituents."

But "the Violence Policy Center, a gun control advocacy group, released a study this week finding that concealed handgun permit holders killed at least seven police officers and 44 private citizens during the two-year period ending in April," the article said.

AP also explains that "concealed weapons are allowed in 48 states. Alaska and Vermont allow any gun owner to carry a concealed gun. Wisconsin and Illinois don't allow them at all, except for law enforcement officers. The other 46 states require permits to carry a concealed gun."

22 July 2009

W.Va. Lottery Resumes Scrutiny of Indicted Operator (UPDATED)

West Virginia's Lottery Commission should be receiving legal advice from the attorney general's office this morning, on whether it can suspend an indicted operator's license without violating a federal judge's asset preservation order, The Associated Press reports.

Federal prosecutors sought that order, as they plan to seize at least $5.3 million from Joe C. Ferrell and his Southern Amusement Co. if they're convicted in the 48-count racketeering and corruption case.

(Update: That legal advice, not revealed at Wednesday's meeting, prompted the commission to leave the license alone pending the outcome of the case. As AP reports, Lottery officials cited how the criminal trial is scheduled for next month -- but they were not aware until asked about it by AP that both sides in the cases want the trial pushed back to February.)

The commission weighed yanking the license last month, but balked over concerns of running afoul of U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver Jr.

As AP observed then, "Southern Amusement is one of the state's largest suppliers of 'limited' video lottery machines to licensed bars and clubs. With permits for 675 devices, the most allowed any one operator, the Logan County company currently leases 640 poker- and slot-style machines to 128 retail locations...(that) rake in $2.3 million a month."

Ferrell, D-Logan, served seven terms in the House of Delegates, taking a break from the Legislature in the 1990s after he pleaded guilty to illegal campaign spending.

County School Boards Lining up to Sue over OPEB

The Charleston Daily Mail counts at least 20 of West Virginia's 55 county school systems ready or expected to file a legal challenge over how they're required to account for the "other post-employment benefits" of their teachers and school personnel.

New rules require government employers to calculate the funding gaps between on-hand assets and OPEB benefits _ mostly health care _ promised to their future retirees.

"School officials fear that merely noting the unfunded liabilities on their financial statements will hurt school system credit ratings and make borrowing to build new schools via bond sales more expensive," the article said. "They want the state to either move the liabilities onto its own books or give the counties enough money to cover the liabilities."

Update: Wood County Superintendent Bill Niday, whose school system has helped lead the charge against the rule, told the Daily Mail that "the plan is to give the state 30 days notice at the end of August and file a lawsuit by early October. It is not yet clear whom the suit will name as defendants."

W.Va. Part of Bucking Trend with CHIP

The New York Times counts West Virginia among the at least 13 states that "have invested millions of dollars this year to cover 250,000 more children with subsidized government health insurance" amid tight budgetary times.

The Mountain State is among those to expand eligibility for the Children's Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, which "has been politically popular since its enactment in 1997 because it primarily benefits working families that earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but too little to afford private insurance," the article said.

The expansions come in the wake of federal legislation that extended the program through 2013 and "provided $32.8 billion in new financing over that period, paid with an increase in tobacco taxes," The Times reported. "The new law allows states to provide coverage to children from families living at up to three times the poverty level. States can set thresholds higher if they wish, but will be reimbursed by the federal government at a lower rate."

21 July 2009

Byrd Returns to U.S. Senate, Casts Vote

U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd cast his first vote Tuesday since he was hospitalized for an infection more than nine weeks ago, The Associated Press reports.

The 91-year-old, in a wheelchair, sided against an amendment _ it prevailed 58-40 _ to a key defense policy bill.

Byrd "was hospitalized May 15 for an infection," AP reported. "His stint in the hospital was extended when he developed a more severe infection, but he was recently released," and "voted to extend production of F-22 fighter planes."

Urban Lawmakers Hope for Special Session on City Pensions

Gov. Joe Manchin is not ruling out a special legislative session devoted to a measure meant "to help cities deal with massive deficits in their police and firefighters' pension plans," The Charleston Gazette reports.

Spokesman Matt Turner said the governor is "encouraged" by the "the so-called 'Huntington plan,'" crafted by lawmakers, city officials and other stakeholders.

"Under the proposal, municipalities could opt to close out pension plans whose overly generous benefits are creating huge unfunded liabilities for their municipal budgets," The Gazette explains. "New hires would go into a new retirement system that would be administered by the state Consolidated Public Retirement Board. With the hemorrhaging stopped in the old plans, cities would then devise plans to pay down the unfunded liabilities over the next 40 years."

Massey CEO Figures in Another Recusal Flap

A friendship with Massey Energy Chief Executive Don Blankenship's are among the alleged reasons being invoked by plaintiffs in a mining pollution case as they seek to disqualify the presiding judge, The Associated Press and others report.

The recusal filing targeting Mingo County Circuit Judge Michael Thornsbury further alleges that the judge has "personal and financial conflicts of interest, participated in illegal out-of-court communications with Virginia-based Massey’s lawyers, deceived plaintiffs into waiving their right to seek legal fees and created “an atmosphere of bias that has permeated all levels of court personnel," AP reports.

Both AP and The Charleston Gazette report that the motion also alleges Thornsbury "appointed his personal business partner -- a Williamson doctor with ties to Massey -- as administrator of a medical monitoring program meant to see if coal-slurry pollution of water supplies has made residents sick."

But the court filing is also the latest "to accuse Blankenship of having an appearance of impropriety with a West Virginia judge," the AP article said.

"In June, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that state Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin should have recused himself from Massey’s appeal of a $50 million verdict involving Harman Mining Corp. because Blankenship had spent $3 million to help elect him," AP reported. "Earlier, Harman’s lawyers unearthed photos showing Blankenship on the French Riviera in 2006 with then-chief justice Elliott “Spike” Maynard, who recused himself and lost re-election four months later."

"Thornsbury said the complaint contains several false allegations, and his secretary, Shelley Kelley, said Monday he will respond to them in writing later this week," the AP article said. "Massey spokesman Jeff Gillenwater also said the company will respond in court."

Manchin in Line to Head NGA

Gov. Joe Manchin was named vice chairman of the National Governors Association during its annual in Mississippi, The Associated Press and others report.

The post sets the stage for the West Virginia Democrat to head the nonpartisan organization in 2011, notes MetroNews, which also interviewed Manchin about his new title.

They Voted For You: Wild Horses

U.S. Reps. Alan Mollohan, D-1st, and Nick Rahall, D-3rd, helped the House pass legislation meant to rescue wild horses and burros "from the possibility of a government-sponsored slaughter and give them millions more acres to roam," The Associated Press reports.

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, voted against the Restore Our American Mustangs Act, as did all but 33 of her House GOP colleagues in the 239-185 roll call.

"An estimated 36,000 wild horses and burros live in 10 Western states," the article said. "Federal officials estimate that's about 9,400 more than can exist in balance with other rangeland resources. Off the range, more than 31,000 other wild horse and burros are cared for in corrals and pastures."

AP also noted the reaction by Rahall, the bill's lead sponsor, to Republicans who "dismissed the measure as welfare for horses."

Chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Rahall said "a majority of Americans would not support slaughtering healthy animals or keeping them in holding pens for years at a time.

"The status quo is a national disgrace," Rahall was quoted as saying. "It is a disgrace to our heritage."

20 July 2009

House Republicans Seek Spousal Disclosures

House Republicans plan to resume their drive to require public officials to disclose at least some financial information of their spouses in the Ethics Commission reports they must file, both The Charleston Gazette and The Register-Herald of Beckley report.

The newspapers note that GOP delegates sought, without success, to add such a provision to the 2005 overhaul of state ethics provisions.

But the proposal may gain more support after the Center for Public Integrity flunked West Virginia, along with 19 other states, for its legislative financial disclosure requirements.

(The center's latest report on the topic notes that "Idaho, Michigan, and Vermont continue to tie for last place, as no personal financial disclosure laws exist, or have ever existed, in those states.")

Quote of the Day

"I don't think there's an appetite for it."

-- Gov. Joe Manchin to The Associated Press, while explaining that while "the federal stimulus package helped states avoid deep budget cuts during the recession," some attending the weekend's National Governors Association convention are "not pushing for another infusion of cash from Washington."

Manchin Aide now with Mylan

The Charleston Daily Mail reports that Lara Ramsburg has left the Manchin administration to become "head of special projects" at generic pharmaceutical giant Mylan Inc.

Ramsburg had been with the governor since his 2005 campaign, and had become his public policy director when it was announced in January that she would be leaving after the legislative session.

The article notes that Mylan co-founder Milan Puskar "was the biggest backer of Joe Manchin's primary campaign for governor," and is also the largest benefactor of West Virginia University.

"The company was in the headlines last year because of a scandal surrounding West Virginia University's retroactive awarding of a master's degree to Mylan executive Heather Bresch, Manchin's daughter," the article said.

19 July 2009

Weekend Protests Target Cap and Trade

Opponents of pending federal "cap and trade" legislation rallied over the weekend both in Beckley, as The Register-Herald reports, and at the state Capitol, according to MetroNews (with audio) and The Charleston Gazette.

The Charleston newspaper also has a companion article scrutinizing the bill's potential impact on coal, while Public Broadcasting reports on a related protest in Morgantown, this one targeting federal health care legislation. With audio.

The Intelligencer of Wheeling, meanwhile, looks at the length of some of these measures pending before Congress.