Corruption is a big, loaded word and not one that should be tossed around lightly. In the Green New Deal rollout, Aru Shiney-Ajay, a 20 year-old organizer with the Sunrise Movement, said “Our generation knows that climate change is happening, we can see it happening before our very eyes. And the thing is we know the solutions are out there as well. Technologically the price of renewable energy is plummeting and the efforts of the Green New Deal show massive popularity and massive potential for real transformative action. But we all know for decades action has not happened. Why? Because fossil-fuel billionaires and corrupt politicians have bought out every level of our government. They have actively unseated politicians who call for climate action, they have dropped millions to defeat statewide climate initiatives and this is all part of a decades-long strategy of denial. And as of two years ago, they have even succeeded in putting a billionaire climate denier into the highest political office of this country."
A few days before the introduction of Green New Deal legislation,
Shiney-Ajay is redefining corruption away from small unmarked bills in an aluminum suitcase toward the slower, deeper, more thorough distortion of the political process away from services to vulnerable constituents toward the service of powerful interests. When you have a clear will of the people and public benefits associated with the transition to a clean economy, it’s only the corrupting influence of deeply entrenched fossil fuel interests that can resist that change.
Siney-Ajay also describes the election of Donald J. Trump in 2016, who famously tweeted four years earlier that “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive” and more recently wished for “a little of that good old fashioned Global Warming” during the midwest polar vortex, as the apotheosis of this corruption.
Two years after Trump's inauguration the election results are in. CO2 emissions increased by 3.4% in 2018 after falling in each of the three previous years. In the eighteen months since President Trump announced a withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, the gap that the US needs to close in order to meet its target has widened.
The 2016 general election saw a Trump wave across the state of West Virginia. Trump’s margin of victory, 68.5%, gave him his largest share of the vote in any state. West Virginia was one of only two states where every county went to Trump. In Jefferson County, where I live with 12,787 registered Democrats, 12,332 Republicans and 13,452 Independents, strong turnout by Trump voters (53.9%) and weak showing for Clinton (38.8%) pushed every significant down-ballot races to Republicans.
Two Jefferson County Commission (JCC) members swept into office for six-year terms on Trump’s coattails, Josh Compton and Caleb Wayne Hudson, have become pivotal figures in the Rockwool controversy. In an interview conducted a few weeks before 2018 midterms, the editor of the Spirit of Jefferson, Christine Snyder, specifically blamed the defeat of Dale Manuel by Compton in the 2016 cycle for bringing Rockwool and heavy industry to the county.
“Dale Manuel always called for public hearings on anything and everything. If he had been on the commission you would have had this discussion in public early on,” Snyder said. “You can place blame all over the place, but the voters elected Josh Compton over Dale Manuel…. saying we don’t want somebody that has two terms under his belt, has been a state lawmaker and knows all the ins and outs. We want a brand new person who hasn’t really been paying attention to Jefferson County or Jefferson County politics, and they put him in that role, and he didn’t call for a public hearing.”
I spoke with Commissioner Compton soon a few days before the 2018 midterms to gauge his level of support for the water bond to serve the Rockwool factory scheduled for a vote by the Jefferson County Development Authority (JCDA) on November 7th, the day after the election. According to several JCDA board members President Eric Lewis had the requisite number of votes lined up to push through the water bond. Compton said he would wait for the election results and take action if necessary in accordance with the will of the people.
Jefferson County Development Authority meeting (JCDA), September 18, 2018, when the second reading of the water bond for Rockwool was postponed and the JCDA went into executive session.
While the 2016 election in Jefferson County was driven by enthusiasm for the candidate at the top of the ticket and his anti-immigration, anti-regulation and isolationist rhetoric, 2018 was effectively a referendum on Rockwool. The three West Virginia State House districts in Jefferson County shifted by 30, 17 and 13 points in favor of anti-Rockwool candidates between 2016 and 2018. By a 12-point spread, the anti-Rockwool vote unseated incumbent Riley Moore, the nephew of Senator Shelley Moore-Capito and grandson of the late Governor Arch Moore, who was expected to assume the mantle of Majority Leader.
According to Republican candidate Mike Folk, who lost to incumbent State Senator John Unger’s re-election bid, polls were showing the county at 2 to 1 against the Rockwool plant with only 10 to 20% undecided or unaware of the issue. In the race with the most bearing on the outcome of the Rockwool project former Jefferson County Prosecutor Ralph Lorenzetti, an anti-Rockwool Democrat, was elected to the JCC over the incumbent Republican Rockwool advocate Pete Onoszko.
“Regarding the JCDA water vote that is scheduled to occur at 1:00pm: If there are members of the JCDA that are not comfortable voting or feel they need more information prior to making a decision, I think it would absolutely prudent to request an extension of the vote timeline rather than making a decision they may or may not be confident doing…”
Compton’s call for a deliberative process was both the result of the midterm election and the public release a week earlier of explosive emails from JCDA board members Lyle Tabb and Julia Yuhasz to Lewis provided by the City of Ranson in response to a JCV Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. ). The email from Tabb conveyed his concern that Lewis had violated the Open Meetings Act by admonishing and threatening board members to vote for the water bond in executive session. Yuhasz noted a lack of clarity, transparency, communications and purpose. The outcome, they were told, was preordained and the board was informed they were potentially personally liable for damages even though they lacked independence or volition.
Most significantly, Yuhasz stated that she was unaware of the nature of the project, that it was heavy industry with potentially significant health impacts, until after the point when the organization for which she is a fiduciary had obligated the county. From her email:
"In reviewing how we got to this point, I believe insufficient communication was provided about the projects and processes that JCDA Board or Staff is involved in or routinely participates in. I did not know, for example, the full scope of 'Project Shuttle’s
impact until the public attention and data reporting received in the past two months. I was never given the impression that Rockwool was heavy industry, could have such significant health impacts on compromised populations, or would be building smokestacks. Had such information been provided about Rockwool, Members would have had over a year to conduct their own research and discuss with others. I believe that many JCDA members would have participated in a more robust discussion of this project or whether it was the 'right fit' for Jefferson County. I feel extremely uncomfortable voting for something that many in public leadership do not entirely understand even now or fervently oppose as a decision which creates financial obligations for Jefferson County for the next 40 years, has untold public health implications, and great potential to drastically change the character of our community."
The planned Rockwool factory is expected to disrupt 15 viewsheds. This rendering shows Rockwool's Byhalia, MS plant superimposed on one such viewshed in Jefferson County, WV. Photo credit: Danny Johnson Love and Sol Photography.
As JCDA president, Lewis had two options. He could ignore Compton's plea, hold the vote and push through the water bond, or he could postpone the vote and allow for further deliberation and input by the JCDA board. He chose a third option.
After canceling the November 7th meeting, Lewis hand-delivered a resignation letter to the JCC two days later accompanied by the resignations of 11 of the other 20 directors. Because the volunteer JCDA board requires at least 12 members to function, the body of public officials accountable to the citizens was rendered ineffective, giving free-reign to Executive Director Nic Diehl who had been recruited by Lewis to the paid position from the West Virginia Development Office (WVDO). Lewis’ wife Joy Lewis continues to receive a salary from WVDO in the position formerly held by Diehl promoting economic development in the Eastern Panhandle.
Tabb doesn't dismiss the notion that the mass resignation was likely known about and advised on by Diehl and William Rohrbaugh, the counsel retained by the JCDA for work on the water bond. “Now that there is no quorum on the board until the County Commission makes its appointments Nic Diehl has no oversight. I know for a fact Diehl is making legal decisions and taking advisement, actions for which the board is supposed to provide oversight,” he said. “The more Eric got frustrated with the bond not passing, the more evident it became that Eric had made a promise and he wasn’t delivering. ‘I’ve been JCDA president for 20 years. I’ll get the votes.’ He tried to do it quickly. Really quick.”
When opposition emerged, Lewis dug in. “The first time he got short and annoyed was at the second reading of the water bond when there was a lot of public input,” said Tabb. From that point on Lewis behaved very differently to Tabb. “He wanted to just jam this thing through. If it gets messed up, it would be on him. He told someone he could deliver and he was frustrated by people saying it was a bad deal. He saw the public negativity as just noise. He had already made his mind up and that was his perspective.”
Tabb said that Lewis’ view of his constituency was typical of the majority of the JCDA board. “Public comment didn’t mean s--- to him, and not just in the most recent case.
He went to a town hall about the Mountaineer Gas pipeline in 2017 at the Shepherdstown Men’s Club. He was very defiant, defensive and pretty much went away from there saying everyone who was there was an activist and uninformed. I would assume he would consider all opinions and make a decision based on that. From the start of public comment on Rockwool, he and the board majority saw public comment as noise and nuisance that they had to put up with to get the water bond passed. That was disappointing.”
According to a source close to Steve Stolipher, a current Planning Commissioner and former JCDA board member, Nic Diehl suggested the mass resignation to get the board under the 12-member threshold required for oversight and governance. Dan Casto, one of the JCDA board members who resigned along with Stolipher and Lewis, denied there was any coordination that led to 11 members resigning on same day, followed by Lewis 24 hours later. “One person decides to resign, then another person decides,” he stated in an email response to a request for comment.
Ray Bruning (far right) and Dan Casto (second to right) listen to public comment at the January 7 Charles Town City Council Meeting. Photo credit: David Levine
The JCC reduced the size of the board to 15 members, solicited applications and announced that interviews and appointments would occur promptly. After receiving 39 applications (including my own) for the 7 remaining open positions, current JCC President and outspoken Rockwool advocate Patsy Nolan added an agenda item seeking the removal of all JCDA board members and requiring their reappointment. The action would further delay the restoration of governance and oversight until at least the end of the month and provide the JCC with an opportunity to re-stack the board with Rockwool supporters.
The January 17, 2019 meeting was packed with citizens urging the JCC to leave the current JCDA members in place and move quickly to appoint new board members. Of the 30 or so citizens providing public comment only a few, including Casto and Planning Commissioner Ray Bruning, spoke in favor of Rockwool. Bruning characterized the Rockwool opposition as anti-growth and Casto admonished the JCC to be the “adults in the room” and ignore the citizens providing public comment against the administrative maneuvers that appeared to favor the development of heavy industry.
Noland asked every JCDA board candidate the same question, “Do you support Jefferson County Vision in their lawsuit against the Development Authority?” JCV has actually filed several lawsuits against the JCDA. Two are related to the JCDA’s refusal to release records pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, and the other concerns the constitutionality of the Payment In Lieu Of Taxes (PILOT) agreement with Rockwool who, according to Amanda Foxx of JCV, “conspired with local government to pay nothing at all for many years. In other years, Rockwool pays at a tiny fraction of the rate every other business and citizen pays.”
Tim Ross, an applicant for a seat on the JCDA board, stated that Nolan’s question on the JCV lawsuit “is kind of a chilling question.” Her response, “It is chilling. It’s meant to be.”
Leigh Smith, the Jefferson County Vision President, called Nolan’s question posed of applicants to a public office unconstitutional. “We sought legal advice about the constitutionality of the questions and have confirmed that your questions, and any similar questions of JCDA applicants, or consideration of responses are a violation of their rights under the U.S. Constitution. Litigation is a form of freedom of expression, and is protected under the U.S. Constitution. Thus, your questions seeking their views on the JCV litigation, which you used to intentionally ‘chill’ the applicants was a violation of their constitutional rights. Likewise, all citizens have a right to the freedom of association without harassment by the government – your negative commentary against JCV and those who support it, along with your misuse of your position of authority to harass or intimidate those who express views advocated by JCV, are also a violation of the constitutional rights of your constituents.”
Diehl will be operating the JCDA without governance or oversight until the appointment of a board that meets the organizational requirements. The second round of interviews is currently scheduled for March 7th, meaning it will be at least a month before the governance of the JCDA is established. Lyle Tabb notes that the last time a seat on the JCDA opened, shortly before the water bond vote, the JCC quickly appointed Sandra Bruning, wife of vocal Rockwool advocate and Planning Commissioner Ray Bruning.
Tabb states, “I don't know of a prior instance where they had 2 rounds of interviews. This process has taken so very long. It's getting ridiculous. 5 of the sitting 8 (including me) have terms that expire April 5, 2019.” He suggests the delay is another attempt to purge the JCDA board of those who question the wisdom of the Rockwool deal.
Until the JCDA board is properly composed, Diehl will submit reports to the JCC on finances and general activities. Rather than providing comfort, the idea of Diehl providing information privately to the JCC rather than the JCDA board is seen as a cause for further concern. Lyle Tabb listened to Diehl’s presentation to the Jefferson County Commission and challenged his use of the term “we”. “There’s never been a ‘we’ since I've been on. There hasn’t been a tangible ‘we’ since our last meeting in October... He has deflected every attempt by the remaining members to assemble since. Even had counsel back him up on it. It sounds like he’s implying he would go along with a full board reset when he calls for a 'fresh start.' I really think that's disrespectful and I take it that way.”
Tabb feels Diehl is an expert salesman with a slick spiel, but the board is only “asked to rubber stamp. I have ideas about how that culture can change, and I have support for that and the other members have great ideas too. Doesn't matter if our voices aren't heard on the board. JCDA has been steered by the executive committee for a long time. They hired Nic, and now they are gone. I think he is more comfortable not having a board. That would be more like his old job. He has no oversight, he knows it, and JCC doesn't seem concerned enough to do anything.”
When Diehl was hired, Noland stated “I’ve known Nic for a long time and I’m very excited... he was the best candidate for the job. Nic can hit the ground running. He is keenly aware of the economic development in the county. I think he is keenly aware of projects that have been and continue to be in the pipeline. And I think he was a great choice.”
Former Commissioner Peter Onoszko chimed in at the time, “Nic was involved, and if you look at his resume, you’ll see that his current position is with the West Virginia Development Office… He was involved in the Roxul (Rockwool) contract and bringing them over here. He was involved in the TEMA, that’s the Italian valve whatever makers, and getting them here. There are several irons in the fire of various degrees of hotness that Nic is involved in from the state Development Office level--in fact representatives of one them had dinner here recently and Nic was an attendee there. His stepping into that position makes it absolutely seamless.”
Working with Reisenweber, Diehl was actively recruiting Rockwool to Jefferson County while employed by the State of West Virginia. Then Lewis recruited Diehl to replace Reisenweber, freeing up a spot with the State for his wife Joy managing business and industrial development for the Eastern Panhandle.
While operating without oversight, Diehl took action in the JCV FOIA lawsuit, attempting to keep records on the Rockwool transaction secret. JCDA’s attorney Carte Goodwin, former Chief Counsel for Manchin who kept a Senate seat warm for him after the death of Robert C. Byrd, filed a motion to dismiss the JCDA’s complaint stating that all documents related to economic development are by their very nature exempt from disclosure, even when the transactions have closed and taxpayers are on the hook for over $37 million in incentives.
The issues of transparency and suppression of the public record came to a head in a special session of the JCC convened last week to discuss the options for reconstituting the JCDA board or appointing new members. During public comment Kai Newkirk, a native of Jefferson County and nationally-recognized progressive organizer, invoked the corruption of civic governance, explained the basis of the opposition to the plant and warned the commissioners how opposition will only increase if they choose to side with corporate interests over their constituents.
He began by stating why he returned to the county to begin organizing, “as I’ve heard from afar about what’s been happening with the Rockwool development I’ve really been outraged to see that this was being pushed forward and was going to put… profits of a multinational corporation before the health of children in our community, before the long-term sustainable economic development of our community, before the land, the air, the water, that is the basis of why so many of us want to be here.”
Below: Kai Newkirk leads a planning meeting of Resist Rockwool in Martinsburg, WV (third from right, hand raised). Above: Morgan Sell shows off her banner for our first direct action. Photo credit: Susan Pipes
Newkirk defines corruption broadly as the willful manipulation by public officials of civic governance against the majority in favor of corporate interests. “People are outraged in part because this has been a very anti-democratic process that many people feel is corrupt and I feel needs to be investigated further. When we look at the hearings and how things have been rolled out and how it’s moved forward this is a very serious concern. If now, after this most recent election when the results show a very clear mandate against this project. If now this commission moves forward in a way that entrenches the commitment... regardless of that opposition I think that’s only going to deepen the sense that this is being pushed through against the will of a majority of people in this county.”
Finally, Newkirk presents the stakes to the commissioners. “If this project moves forward, and you and others continue to be on the wrong side of that moral question I believe it’s very clear that resistance is going to grow. And this opposition is only going to intensify. And you’re going to be faced more and more with the question of whether it’s courageous and right for this community and back up the clear will of the majority or stand frankly in a shameful position of rejecting that and moving forward something that will be viewed very negatively in history. And so i appeal to you and your conscience to stand with the will of the majority and do what’s right.”
After Newkirk’s call for courage and openness, Noland called in the JCC attorney and proposed closing the meeting to the public and conducting their deliberation on the composition of the JCDA board in executive session. According to the WV Ethics website, a governing body may only go into executive session for the reasons set forth in the Open Meetings Act at W.Va. Code § 6-9A-4. Noland’s motion for executive session was predicated on the discussion of “pending litigation,” thought the matters in litigation involving the JCC were not related to the composition of the JCDA board.
Commissioners Lorenzetti and Compton vocally expressed their preference for conducting the deliberation in the open, and only afterward going into executive session for specific matters that might require attorney-client privilege in ongoing litigation. When Nolan called for a vote, however, Compton voted with Nolan and Hudson in the majority against Lorenzetti and Tabb to turn off the cameras and remove the public.
After sitting for a moment in shock, the public obediently filed out of the room.
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