Justice: ‘We need a great commerce leader’

CHARLESTON — More than 80 days since Woody Thrasher resigned amid controversy as commerce secretary, Gov. Jim Justice said it is time for a permanent leader at the department, but finding that new leader was proving to be a challenge.

Justice addressed questions about the Department of Commerce vacancy during a press conference Tuesday at the State Capitol.

“I think we’re probably closer to what I’d want to tell you today about filling the commerce person,” Justice said. “It’s such a key position. You don’t just want to just fill it for the sake of filling it.”

W. Clayton Burch has filled in as acting secretary of the Commerce Department since June 15, the day after Thrasher resigned. The department oversees eight divisions: the state Development Office; the Division of Forestry; the Geological and Economic Survey; the Division of Labor; the Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training; the Division of Natural Resources; the Division of Tourism; and WorkForce West Virginia.

Justice said that his staff is actively looking at candidates for commerce secretary, but is having trouble with finding someone willing to do the job. According to the State Auditor’s Office, Thrasher’s salary was more than $85,000 a year.

“If you’ve got a great name, I’d love to hear it. We have looked and looked and interviewed and interviewed,” Justice said. “If you’re looking for a superstar and you know the wage we’re able to pay, and to get somebody to give up part of their life to where they can get rocks thrown at them or whatever it may be, it’s difficult to fill the position.”

Thrasher resigned June 14 at the request of Justice after two controversies. First, the Commerce Department came under scrutiny after RISE West Virginia — a $150 million program created to rebuild homes after massive flooding in June 2016 — entered into six illegal contracts totaling more than $18 million with disaster management company Horne LLP. Commerce also entered into more than $71 million in contracts with four construction companies before being granted HUD approval.

The governor’s office asked for an operational pause on the RISE program starting Feb. 28 while it reviewed the contracts with Horne. That pause wasn’t lifted until June 4, when Justice put James Hoyer, adjutant general of the West Virginia National Guard, in charge of RISE.

“We stumbled upon an issue in commerce that was basically just this: we were throwing money away,” Justice said. “We discovered something that was just wrong. A lot of things had to be done, so we did them.”

Thrasher also came under fire for the Commerce Department’s EXCEL program, which embedded business executives for full-time and part-time at the department. One of those business leaders — Appalachia Development Group CEO Steve Hedrick — was allowed by the department to be part of discussions with officials of natural gas development company China Energy and fly on state aircraft, including once by himself.

“There are people in government who can just sign onto things that they should never ever be signing onto things,” Justice said. “They shouldn’t be allowed to do it. We’re trying every day to clean up a little bit more and a little bit more.”

Since the governor’s office started getting involved with commerce, several top officials have left the department, including: Kris Hopkins, executive director of the Development Office; Josh Jarrell, deputy secretary of the Department of Commerce and chief legal counsel; Mary Jo Thompson, director of community development in the Department of Commerce; and Russell Tarry, director of the West Virginia Office of Economic Opportunity.

Justice said that, despite not having a new commerce secretary, the eight agencies are still operating as normal, including talks with China Energy officials, who are slated to return to West Virginia. The state entered into a $83.7 billion memorandum of understanding with China Energy in 2017. Officials with the company canceled a trip to West Virginia earlier this summer but are slated to return to the state Sept. 27.

“We’re still holding it together and keeping it moving in the right direction. It’s moving, and we’re making every show,” Justice said. “We’ve met with (China Energy) again and it’s all promising. We’re making every show, but it’s hard. We need a great commerce leader, that’s for sure.”

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