FEMA scandal is outrageous

After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico more than a year ago, West Virginians probably were among those shaking our heads over the situation. Inefficiency and corruption are bad enough in the U.S. territory that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had to put special rules in place to ensure aid actually gets to those who need it.

There’s only one other place where FEMA has had to establish such special restrictions: West Virginia.

Of all the scandals we’ve heard about in state government this year, the one involving FEMA may be the most outrageous.

If you’re upset, I have one name for you: Jimmy Gianato. This is not his first rodeo, as they say.

A few days ago, state legislators heard about the FEMA situation. It stems from what the agency calls “deficiencies in internal control and management” by West Virginia’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Under FEMA’s restrictions, the state had to pay up-front for some disaster relief and had to thoroughly detail the need for expenditures before being reimbursed by FEMA.

Again, no other state had to do that.

Something might have been done about it sooner, had most state officials involved in disaster relief known about FEMA’s action. Though the agency put the new rules into effect in 2015, it was only recently that high-ranking officials knew about it.

Gianato was state director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for several years. It was he to whom FEMA officials wrote in 2015, expressing concern over state lapses and informing him of the restrictions. Correspondence on the matter continued through the year, then into 2016 and 2017.

But Gianato apparently kept the problem to himself. One of his bosses, former Military Affairs and Public Safety cabinet secretary Joe Thornton, didn’t know about it. Neither did former Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin or current chief executive Jim Justice, it appears.

After what appear to have been unrelated lapses in management of $150 million in federal flood relief funds last year, Gianato was removed as director. He remains on the state payroll as a “homeland security adviser.”

He seems to lead a charmed career in state government. Remember “routergate?” In addition to the waste of millions of dollars in purchases of needlessly complex computer network routers, it encompassed a scandal over construction of cellular telephone towers.

In 2013, the legislative auditor looked into the $10 million tower project, overseen by Gianato and then-emergency communications director Joe Gonzalez. According to a published report, the two hired one company with which Gianato had a “professional relationship” for some of the tower project. In 2010, the two gave the firm a contract without going through the proper bid process, the auditor found. That happened though the state purchasing director advised Gianato and Gonzalez the work should be halted because it had not been contracted properly.

One might have thought that would convince Gianato to cross all his “t’s” and dot all his “i’s” in dealing with FEMA. Apparently not.

Fortunately, FEMA officials say their relationship with the state is much improved. Lapses of the past are being corrected.

But what about those responsible for them — and for failing to tell their superiors about the problem?

Asked about Gianato, state Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, had this to say: “If he’s culpable, certainly there should be ramifications.” Well, obviously.

But will anyone be held accountable? There is a ray of hope on that.

It is that this is not — or should not — be a partisan issue. The immediate scandal concerning FEMA spanned the administrations of both Democrat and Republican governors. It went on while both parties, in turn, controlled the Legislature.

We’ll see what happens next.

— Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

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