An Agency in Jeopardy, a Senator's Wife and a Firing in West Virginia

by | March 13, 2018

By Ryan Quinn and Jake Zuckerman

Gov. Jim Justice announced Monday night that he had fired Education and the Arts Secretary Gayle Manchin, wife of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., after she sent out a news release in which she offered to "resign to remove any political pressure."

"She was told that we accepted her resignation, she refused, and we terminated her," Justice said in the 7:51 p.m. news release. The Gazette-Mail received Gayle Manchin's news release late Monday afternoon.

"We have not made a decision yet on legislation [House Bill 4006] to reorganize the Department of the Education and the Arts," Justice said of a bill the West Virginia Legislature has passed. The legislation would actually eliminate that department and Manchin's position, sending the department's agencies elsewhere in state government.

"Earlier today, Secretary Manchin asked the chief of staff, Mike Hall, about how she should approach this," Justice said. "She was told by the chief of staff to do nothing based upon my public comments this morning, and that my decision to veto or sign this bill has not been made.

"Later in the day, she decided to defy the chief of staff's instructions and issued a press release. In her press release she offered to resign and remove any political cloud. If there weren't any earlier political cloud, now there surely is one. She was very critical, made it political, and put me in a very, very bad position."

Gayle Manchin laughed at the "bad position" line when she was read the news release by a reporter Monday. She said she learned about her firing from someone who had called after seeing the news release.

She said her earlier offer to resign was contingent on being able to "sit down and work out how we can resolve this in a responsible, compassionate way if he wanted to dissolve the Cabinet." She said if Justice instead wanted the department to continue, she was willing to resign to "protect the program."

She said her directors were calling and, "people are scared to death," and that she had called Hall and told him she wanted to put out a news release basically saying what she eventually did say in her news release.

"I said I've not had a conversation with the governor since he interviewed me for this job and appointed me," she said. She said Hall told her he'd get back to her, but "two hours later, I said I'm just not going to do this. I'm not going to put my agencies and my programs through this, so I sent the press release."

She said Justice general counsel Brian Abraham then called her to a meeting with Hall and deputy chief of staff Ann Urling, where she was told she was being asked to resign "because I had defied them."

"I said I would not leave my programs in jeopardy," Manchin said. She said Abraham said they were still vetting the bill, but she said, "You should have already had it vetted."

"If you were doing your job half as well as I'm doing my job, we wouldn't even have this conversation, because this bill should have never seen the light of day," she said. "You don't leave people in that kind of jeopardy and wondering from one day to the next is their grant going to be there for them."

Six agency heads under the department secretary wrote a letter to Hall on Monday, urging him to come up with a transition plan.

Manchin said the legislation is "reckless" and "politically motivated," and would not free up any significant money for the state.

Despite concerns from the Department of Education and the Arts agency heads, the separate state Department of Education said Monday on Twitter that all the Education and the Arts programming would continue, if House Bill 4006 becomes law, without disruption or loss of funding.

Some points of the letter seem to contradict the updates from the Department of Education, though.

For instance, the agency heads requested that Justice issue an executive order locating funding for the West Virginia Commission for National Service in the Governor's Office. The program directs grants to all the state's AmeriCorps programs -- including Energy Express, which was a specific program of concern for legislators.

The letter requests Justice designate a state spending unit to receive funds for the Lottery, federal and special-revenue accounts for the program. The letter states that the funds are currently in "shared accounts" and there is no plan to separate them.

"Without the above actions, all West Virginia AmeriCorps programs are at risk, including Energy Express," the letter states.

Energy Express is a summer program designed to help students gain or maintain reading levels. It also provides meals to students from rural and poor communities when schools are not in session, according to the program's website.

The following department heads signed on to the letter: Scott Finn, of the Educational Broadcasting Authority; Heather Foster, of Volunteer West Virginia; Karen Goff, of the West Virginia Library Commission; Randall Reid-Smith, of the West Virginia Division of Culture and History; Lorrie Smith, of the Center for Professional Development; and Marijane Waldron, of the Division of Rehabilitation Services.

The Department of Education, in a series of posts on Twitter, held its position that Justice's signature on the bill would not imperil the Department of Education and the Arts' programming or funding.

As the Legislature debated the bill, several of its Democratic critics said the bill was a political ploy targeting Gayle Manchin. Joe Manchin is running for re-election this year. Justice appointed Gayle Manchin when he was a Democrat, but he's since switched parties and become a Republican.

"In an obvious rush to score partisan points, the Republican state Legislature passed dangerous and destructive legislation to eliminate the Office of Education and the Arts on a mostly party-line vote," Gayle Manchin said. "This is a Cabinet post that reports directly to the governor and serves thousands across our state; it helps the disabled, provides summer programs for our children through federal funding, and many others that touch families all over West Virginia."

The letter spells out several other potential problems with scrapping the Department of Education and the Arts, mostly centered around the potential loss of federal funding.

For instance, for the Division of Rehabilitation Services, the federal government needs to approve an amended state plan designating a new state agency for its programs, which requires statewide public meetings and a public comment period.

The DRS helps West Virginians with disabilities live and work independently, according to its website.

Additionally, the Educational Broadcasting Authority, which oversees West Virginia Public Broadcasting and the "Mountain Stage" concert series and radio show, is in the midst of replacing its three TV transmitters, as is required by the Federal Communications Commission.

"Most of the money will come from the FCC's reimbursement account for the spectrum repack, but this will be a huge undertaking requiring many hours of technical assistance with purchasing issues -- assistance that is now provided by [the Office of the Secretary of Education]," the letter states.

The department heads spelled out additional concerns regarding the Library Commission, the Center for Professional Development and the Division of Culture and History.

While Gayle Manchin offered her resignation Monday, she brushed off the idea when asked by a reporter last week, saying it would lead to the same conclusion.

"It would put the same thing back in motion, there would be no cabinet secretary so they would just dissolve everything, so that really doesn't solve everything," she said. "If I just resign, they would say, 'We'll just dissolve the department,' and so, still, you're going to have the same thing."

Justice has 15 days from the bill's March 10 vote to act on it. If he does not, it becomes law without his signature.

"As I have been saying for the last several days, we are continuing to examine this legislation, looking for cost savings, how to preserve and promote the arts and to make absolutely, positively certain that none of the programs or our citizens will be harmed in any way," Justice said in his news release. "And we will continue to do exactly that.

"I sincerely appreciate the years of service Secretary Manchin has given to the State of West Virginia."

"Gayle Manchin chose to put the people of West Virginia ahead of politics and her cabinet position," State Democratic Party Chairwoman Belinda Biafore said in a news release distributed about two hours after Justice's. "She spoke out against a reckless Republican bill that will hurt children, seniors, veterans, West Virginians with disabilities, and disaster response training, and because she had the courage to speak out, Governor Justice removed the only woman serving in his cabinet."

"It's a shame that Governor Justice, who said he didn't have a political bone in his body, has become such a hardcore partisan. Justice is now officially the ringleader of the Republican circus in Charleston," Biafore said. "Mrs. Manchin took the high road and tried to remove politics from the situation, but the Republicans showed their true colors by putting politics over the people. It's a sad day for West Virginia."

Manchin spokesman Grant Herring said that the senator wouldn't be releasing a statement Monday night.

(c)2018 The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.)