State auditor's office shares spending, dates of pause in RISE flood recovery program

Members of a West Virginia legislative committee listen to those who appeared before the lawmakers Thursday for a question-and-answer session. (WCHS/WVAH)

The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Government and Finance met Thursday morning to get a closer look at flood recovery concerns, including odd spending and having several no-shows by state employees in former meetings.

Marty Wright, general counsel of the state auditor’s office, provided a timeline where a possible pause took place in the program. Wright said the exact date of when the pause began was hard to pinpoint.

An internal memorandum addressed to Mary Jo Thompson and Russell Tarry with the Department of Commerce was discovered. The memo was dated March 26, 2018, and noted a pause had been put on the program, effective Feb. 28, 2018.

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Wright noted the pause in the program resumed June 4 when Gov. Jim Justice appointed the West Virginia National Guard to take over the program at a news conference.

Wright said payments to construction vendors were still active between Feb. 28 and June 4, though homes were not being built.

James Messick with the state auditor’s office said there was a lot of difficulty determining which funds were meant for flood recovery and which were grants for other purposes. Messick told the committee Thursday that of the $149 million that was designated for flood recovery efforts, they found that only $1.4 million had been spent on flood-related expenditures.

“We would like to stress the difficulty we had in determining which transactions were meant for the flood,” Messick said.

Merrick said $43,500 of the $149 million had been paid out to individuals in West Virginia. Payments were also made to contractor vendors and $6,000 was spent on 100-yard signs, though Merrick said he did not have further details on the signs. In addition, $15,000 was spent on meetings at Stonewall Jackson resort, state audit officials said.

Lawmakers had expressed concern when Thompson and Tarry did not appear as scheduled June 26 to talk about RISE West Virginia 2016 flood recovery efforts. The two employees had resigned from the Development Office several days before the scheduled testimony.

Thompson, a former Development Office employee, received a subpoena to appear before the committee Thursday. She ran the long-term relief program in the Development Office. Senators and delegates asked for explanations on how RISE spent $6,000 for the yard signs and only managed to help 11 families back in homes before the National Guard was called to salvage the program.

Thompson apologized Thursday.

"I truly believed that on behalf of the program and on behalf of the state and on behalf of myself, it was time to create a clean slate for the new leadership and the new direction that the governor's office was going in and it was simply time for me to go," she said.

Other witnesses expected Thursday includes former development employee Josh Jarrell.

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