Associated Press Published

Burch Named as Interim West Virginia Commerce Secretary

W. Clayton Burch, Interim Secretary, West Virginia Department of Commerce.

Gov. Jim Justice named W. Clayton Burch as interim secretary at the West Virginia Department of Commerce on Friday, a day after forcing out his predecessor.

Justice said in a statement that Burch has done a good job as acting secretary of the Department of Education and the Arts. Justice said he thinks Burch will be a good fit at the Commerce Department until a permanent leader is named. He said a search will begin immediately.

Justice said Thursday he asked for Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher’s resignation after complaints about poor management and residents receiving no help from a housing assistance program for 2016 flood victims.

Justice named West Virginia Adjutant General James Hoyer earlier this month to take control of the flood recovery program. On Friday, Hoyer said officials were making progress on moving claims forward in the RISE West Virginia program.

To accelerate the rebuilding process, Hoyer has said that case management systems under the Federal Emergency Management Agency and RISE West Virginia would be monitored separately through a disaster response group, the West Virginia Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. Hoyer said Friday that after reviewing all the claims in the RISE system, officials believe there are 452 family homes that need to be addressed.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Justice’s predecessor, had put the Commerce Department in charge of the program in 2016. Justice temporarily stopped it this year after it was discovered that a $17 million contract change order had not been properly vetted. Justice has since said that the consulting contract with Horne LLP, a Mississippi-based firm that helps states respond to natural disasters, will be reduced to $9 million or $10 million.

A subsequent investigation uncovered problems within the Commerce Department and the RISE program, which has received $150 million in community development block grants for disaster recovery from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Justice said the HUD money wasn’t made available until this past February. The RISE program began receiving applications for assistance last August but little money had been doled out. He also said Thrasher’s November 2017 news release claiming more than 1,100 families had been served was “totally inaccurate.”

The 2016 floods were unleashed by severe thunderstorms that killed 23 people statewide and destroyed or damaged thousands of homes, businesses and schools. Senate President Mitch Carmichael and House of Delegates Speaker Tim Armstead wrote last month that many survivors still await help.

After Thrasher’s termination, House and Senate Democratic caucus leaders issued a statement critical of the administration of Justice, a Republican, on its handling of the flood program while taking swipes at the governor himself.

One lawmaker, Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, called for Justice to resign as well “so someone else can do the real work” of the governor.

Justice responded by saying he has accomplished more in 17 months than the “lifetime politicians” have in years. He said he has no intention of stepping down and aims to continue working to make West Virginia a better place.