Sustained Outrage

WVU secrecy VI

Last week, we reported the ways WVU kept secret its deliberations in hiring James P. Clements as the school’s 23rd president. You’d think now that the Higher Education Policy Commission has confirmed the Board of Governors’ pick and agreed to his salary of $450,000, that WVU might be more forthcoming in details of Clements’ other compensation and perks.

However, WVU officials on Monday declined to share this public information without the delays of a formal Freedom of Information Act request.

In an e-mail, WVU spokesman Dan Kim wrote:

 “I think the best approach would be for you to submit a FOIA for the contract. That contract is not yet complete, but you should go ahead and submit your request. I think that will be the best way to get answers to your questions.”

    

A friend of coal?

green_mike.jpgI blogged last week over at Coal Tattoo about new legislation introduced to give West Virginia coal companies more time — again — to comply with water quality limits for toxic selenium pollution. See Stalling on selenium — again.

I noted that Sen. Mike Green, D-Raleigh, the chairman of the Senate’s Energy, Industry and Mining Committee (a panel that handles all legislation affecting the coal industry) listed himself as a “Friend of Coal” in his official biography.

Today, I did a quick check just to see how friendly Sen. Green is with the coal industry, and found a few campaign contributions from the major industry his committee is supposed to oversee.

Among them:

— $500 from Randy Hansford of Riverton Coal

— $500 each from political action committees associated with Norfolk-Southern and CSX.

— $500 from coal operator Andrew Jordan.

— $800 from West Virginians for Coal.

— $250 from Arch Coal’s PAC.

— $800 from AEP.

If I have time, it would be interesting to see how much campaign cash the coal industry has donated to all of this bill’s sponsors, or to all members of the EIM committee.

For any readers who are interested, the Secretary of State’s office posts these campaign cash reports online here.

Highway robbery II

As evidence of runaway engineering fees on various state highway projects, Gov. Joe Manchin’s office compiled a few examples. These 10 pages cover projects in Wood, Pendleton, Hancock, Roane, Grant, Preston, Cabell, Monongalia, Berkeley and Lincoln counties.

At the bottom of each page, Paul Turman, deputy commissioner of the state Division of Highways, has written the percentage of the total project cost claimed by engineering fees.

Engineering services on smaller projects often make up a greater percentage of the price than they do on larger projects. Even so, engineering fees should fall roughly between 5 and 12 percent of the total cost of the project, according to a group of architects and engineers I spoke with last week.

barrel.jpgIn these examples, the highest percentage is 69 percent to widen a section of WV 105 to three lanes in Hancock County. The lowest percentage in this sample is 27 percent to add a turning lane on U.S. 33 in Franklin, Pendleton County.

For more background, see Highway robbery?

Bring back the TRI

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Hundreds of national, state and local groups are calling on the Obama EPA to reverse a Bush administration rule that limited public access to information about toxic chemical releases.

In a letter to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, 238 organizations — along with nearly 1,300 individuals — urged the agency to settle an ongoing lawsuit that challenged the Toxics Release Inventory Burden Reduction Rule.

“The Bush administration’s rollbacks set a dangerous precedent undermining two decades of public access to toxic pollution data,” said U.S. PIRG Public Health Advocate Liz Hitchcock. “Congress established the TRI program to serve the public by providing information about toxic releases in our communities, and we urge the Obama administration to restore the public’s right to know.”

Continue reading…

Cheating Chesapeake shareholders?

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We had a mention in Gazette Business Editor Eric Eyre’s story on the loss of 215 Chesapeake Energy jobs in Charleston of a class-action lawsuit against the company,CEO Aubrey McClendon (above), its officers and directors on behalf of Chesapeake’s shareholders.

Over at the West Virginia Business Litigation blog, Jeffrey V. Mehalic has posted a copy of the lawsuit, which Mehalic reports “alleges various securities laws violations that have caused Chesapeake’s stock to drop 80% from its offering price in July 2008.”

Continue reading…

Fixing toxic regulations

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We’ve been writing a lot for a few years at the Gazette about C8, the toxic chemical used to make Teflon and lots of other cool nonstick and stain-resistant products. (See here, here and here)

But did you know that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not routinely assess the risks of roughly 80,000 industrial chemicals in use? Or that federal law does not require chemical companies to test the approximately 700 new chemicals introduced into commerce every year?

Well, it’s true, and a new report from the congressional auditors and watchdogs at the U.S. Governmental Accountability Office have some recommendations for fixing this somewhat scary situation. And actually, most of these ideas are not new. GAO made similar suggestions in 2007, 2006, 2005, and 2004. Congress has never really listened, so this year, the GAO added reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act (known as TSCA) to its list of “High Risk” government programs in urgent need of change. Said the GAO:

EPA does not have sufficient chemical assessment information to determine whether it should establish controls to limit public exposure to many chemicals that may pose substantial health risks. Actions are needed to streamline and increase the transparency of the Integrated Risk Information System and to enhance EPA’s ability under the Toxic Substances Control Act to obtain health and safety information from the chemical industry.

Continue reading…

Highway robbery?

barrel.jpgWhile working on today’s column, I learned from the governor’s office about an alarming federal audit of charges by engineering firms that are paid with federal highway money.  After a number of states complained of the fees they were charged, the feds looked at the charges of 41 design and engineering firms out of 3,580. Here’s a taste of the findings:

“We found that indirect cost rate claims from 21, of our sample of 41, D&E firms included unallowable costs — some expressly unallowable — totaling about $15.7 million. Of that amount, state DOT contracts were charged about $5.5 million, of which about $4.4 million — the Federal share — was reimbursed with Federal-aid funds. Examples of unallowable costs we found were:

$301,667 for 45 automobile leases — 5 of which were luxury class including Mercedes, BMW, and Lexus — with no documented business purpose.

$280,609 in executive compensation in excess of the Federal statutory cap.

$247,685 for items such as social dinners with clients; dining club memberships; outings to professional and college sporting events; theme and holiday parties; and trips to Atlantic City, a city zoo, and a county expo fair.

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Show us the money

Last month, as my colleague Doug Smock on the sports desk reported, Marshall University reached a settlement with former compliance director David Ridpath. Ridpath, you may recall, sued the university, former football coach Bob Pruett and other officials, maintaining they turned him into the scapegoat for major NCAA violations within the athletic department.

Roger Forman, Ridpath’s lawyer, told the Gazette that Marshall had agreed to write a letter to the NCAA clearing Ridpath of responsibility for the violations that landed the school on probation. Oh, and there was an undisclosed cash settlement.

U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers signed an order on Feb. 2, giving the parties 30 days to iron out the details and submit an agreed order of dismissal for his approval. Barring that, Chambers is free to dismiss the Ridpath case without prejudice, meaning the parties would have to refile to get the case reinstated on Chambers’ docket.

That was 32 days ago.

Continue reading…

More evidence against C8

This week, I did a story for the Gazette about a new study that found exposure to the Teflon-production agent C8 could be damaging sperm and reducing sperm counts in humans.

I failed to mention a key thing in that story — that the levels of C8 involved really weren’t that high. The most troublesome part of the study is that sperm seemed to be affected by concentrations of C8 that were about what the general public is already exposed to.

Continue reading…

WVU Secrecy V

Number 9, number 9, number 9, number 9, number 9
Number 9, number 9, number 9, number 9, number 9
Number 9, number 9, number 9, number 9, number…

— Lennon-McCartney

The West Virginia University Board of Governors continues to thumb its nose at the public. The Associated Press reports this afternoon that the board has selected its pick to be the next president of West Virginia’s flagship university.

But as the AP also reports, the board didn’t release the name of its choice:

The candidate of choice is only being referred to as Candidate No. 9 until he is approved by the state’s Higher Education Policy Commission.

When it wrote the state’s Open Governmental Proceedings Act, the Legislature specifically tried to prevent exactly this sort of nonsense.

Here’s what it says in W.Va. Code 6-9A-8(a):

…The members of a public agency may not deliberate, vote, or otherwise take official action upon any matter by reference to a letter, number or other designation or other secret device or method, which may render it difficult for persons attending a meeting of the public agency to understand what is being deliberated, voted or acted upon.

If the Board of Governors wants to vote based on numeric codes, they have to give the public the codes. Here’s what the law says:

…This subsection does not prohibit a public agency from deliberating, voting or otherwise taking action by reference to an agenda, if copies of the agenda, sufficiently worded to enable the public to understand what is being deliberated, voted or acted upon, are available for public inspection at the meeting.