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In his weekly media briefing on Wednesday, Gov. Jim Justice was asked about the pending settlement reached Tuesday in the federal class-action lawsuit alleging inhumane and unsanitary conditions at the Raleigh County Southern Regional Jail.
Justice said he “wasn’t buying” jail inspector initial reports that “everything was ok.”
“We had people that purposefully covered stuff up,” Justice said. “What we found wasn’t very pretty and we’re trying to straighten it up.”
The pending settlement comes about a week after U.S. Magistrate Judge Omar J. Aboulhosn wrote a 39-page order, determining Department of Corrections officials intentionally destroyed evidence, including emails and electronically stored documents. Aboulhosn recommended the court side with the plaintiffs and issue a summary judgment.
Justice’s Chief of Staff, Brian Abraham, said in the briefing that after Aboulhosn’s ruling, his staff met with their outside attorneys handling the case, along with the State Board of Risk and Insurance Management.
“They advised us that given the status of the case, with the magistrate judge recommending default judgment, that it was in the best interest of the state to resolve this matter,” Abraham said.
Abraham noted two top correction leaders, Brad Douglas, the former interim corrections commissioner and recent executive officer for the jails system, and Phil Sword, chief counsel for the homeland security agency, were fired. He said the evidence was recovered, but a second internal investigation involving corrections is ongoing.
“We got news back that everything was okay,” Abraham said. “We’ve since learned that the staff at the jail weren’t doing the things they needed to do. The governor’s instructed me to now conduct another internal investigation regarding any other potential employees that might be implicated in this. There’s been two high level individuals that have lost their employment as a result of this and there may be others coming.”
The inmates’ attorney said the undisclosed settlement involves only punitive, or financial relief. The attorney said a separate lawsuit against Justice and Secretary of Homeland Security Mark Sorsaia focuses on injunctive relief, getting jail conditions corrected statewide.
U.S. District Judge Frank W. Volk filed an order Tuesday stating inmates Michael Rose and Edward Harmon reached a settlement with former Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation interim Commissioner Brad Douglas, former DCR Commissioner Betsy Jividen, current interim DCR Commissioner William Marshall, former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeff Sandy, and former Southern Regional Jail Superintendent Michael Francis.
With no details yet released, the filing notes the settlement involves forming a Limited Fund Class Action to be approved by the court. Other parties, including the county commissions served by the jail, were not included in the settlement.
Volk ordered a status conference on the case for Thursday at 12:30 p.m. at the federal courthouse in Charleston.