Audit critical of tower project

A recently released legislative audit was critical of how state Homeland Security officials allowed a contract to build a single emergency communications tower in Lewis County to blossom into a series of projects across West Virginia.

The state office allowed a Jane Lew company, Premier Construction, to build 17 towers, even though the company did not have a state contract to do so. Premier Construction was the company hired in 2009 by the Lewis County Commission to build a tower in the Roanoke area.

But when additional state and federal money became available, state Homeland Security leaders used the Lewis County contract as a means to allow Premier Construction to be the contractor for those additional projects.

The Lewis County Commission was then asked by the state to serve as a pass-through agency, meaning the contractors would send their bills to the Lewis County Commission, which would then request the funding from the state and would fill out the necessary paperwork to do so.

When that money was transferred into the Lewis County accounts, the contractors would then be paid within three days. Lewis County was selected because it had the valid, working contract with Premier Construction at the time.

“Lewis County didn’t receive a penny for any of this,” County Administrator Cindy Whetsell said. “We were told by the state it was a valid state contract. But the audit showed that the bidding process didn’t follow state policies, that it was valid (only) as a county contract. But why would we as Lewis County ever have questioned the state agency about the state policy?”

According to the audit, West Virginia had received more than $126 million in federal funds to expand high-speed Internet, and that funding also included $38 million to upgrade the state’s emergency communication towers. More than $10 million was appropriated for tower construction, while the remaining funds were to be used to purchase radio equipment.

The state’s purchasing director was concerned about the tower projects and the Lewis County contract and asked Homeland Security leaders to halt any construction, which did not happen, according to the audit.

“We did not know about that until it came out in the legislative audit,” Whetsell said. “The state is saying (Homeland Security) should have never used our contract, that it should have been bid out differently because it was never just one project. The state said the contract was good for one tower, not 17.”

The audit findings could be turned over to the U.S. District Attorney’s Office in West Virginia for further investigation.

“I truly do not think that at any point there was any intent to do something wrong,” Whetsell said. “I really think they just wanted to get this system built. They just wanted to build these towers.”

The tower project is supposed to improve the response time and communications of emergency responders and to make broadband Internet available in rural areas of the state. The state system would also be linked to a national public safety network.

“Nobody ever talks about how effective this system is,” Whetsell said. “You have emergency responders now being able to communicate with each other in areas they had never been able to before.”