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Email shows drug firm employees applauded customers’ shift to illicit drugs

CHARLESTON — An email released Friday in the federal trial pitting Huntington and Cabell County against three drug distributors showed McKesson Corp. employees cheering trends that showed Appalachians were shifting away from opioid pills to illicit drugs in 2012.

The email was sent among McKesson employees — first by Tracy Jonas, director of regulatory processes, who shared a February 2012 article that said the DEA was seeing a sharp drop in oxycodone sales in Florida.

“We are showing trends in other states where the addicts are moving to heroin and Meth. Ohio and Ky. for instance. I spoke to Jeff Conners of the DEA and he called it ‘Whack a Mole,’” Dave Gustin, a director of regulatory affairs, responded.

Jonas responded, “Good … let them move to heroin and meth … we don’t have to monitor that.”

“I was thinking that but didn’t want to verbalize it,” Gustin responded.

According to a 2020 federal court plea in Kentucky, this was around the time Gustin approved the shipping of 300,000 pills into a rural Kentucky pharmacy, a charge for which he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor.

The email was released Friday after U.S. District Judge David Faber said he felt it was in the public’s best interest to share it after defendants attempted to block its release, stating Cabell County attorney Paul T. Farrell Jr. was attempting to illustrate his own story.

Huntington and Cabell County have accused the “Big Three” drug wholesalers — AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson — of fueling the opioid crisis by sending excessive shipments of opioids into the area for eight years, before a reduction in the number of pills shipped made users turn to illicit drugs.

The defendants point to the Drug Enforcement Administration, doctors and West Virginians’ poor health as the culprits.

Also Friday, Dr. Lyn O’Connell, associate director of addiction sciences at Marshall Health, resumed her testimony to discuss the $2.6 billion “Resiliency Plan,” which details short- and long-term goals for Cabell County, centered around establishing an Addiction Science Institute to support and organize countywide efforts. The institute will facilitate research and education, and house other resources.

A governing board would be established to allocate funds, whether they come from this trial or grants. It will include representatives from the governments, Marshall University and other community leaders.

But the governments are still a ways off from being where they need to be, she said.

“The groundwork is there. It does feel to me we are standing on a solid foundation right now,” she said.

What Huntington and Cabell County don’t have right now is a transportation program for people who live too far away to get to services. Services also need to be expanded to be open at all hours if someone wakes up in the middle of the night and realizes they need help, she said. The municipalities also need ways to train and educate people, get the workforce ready and help those in recovery to pay court fines to regain their IDs and driver’s licenses.

O’Connell said the vast majority of these programs run on grants, which are unreliable and don’t give long-term funding. The grant for the Quick Response Team, for example, loses its funding at the end of June. To be able to continue on the path to recovery, the community needs its own funds.

“I worked on a grant until the night before I delivered (my baby). That’s how important these are to get out,” she said. “We are constantly working on that. If we knew there was reliable funding, I can’t even imagine (where we would be).”

Steve Ruby, former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia who now represents Cardinal Health, questioned O’Connell’s testimony, noting she did a radio interview recently during which she talked about the trial and said she thought the plaintiffs would get millions of dollars out of the case.

Ruby questioned if the wide-reaching Resiliency Plan calling for millions of dollars to abate the opioid crisis was an over-exaggeration to use at trial. Farrell, the lead attorney for Cabell County, was present at the first meeting that led to its creation, Ruby said.

Ruby said the first few draft estimates were much less than $2.6 billion. In the first draft, he said the institute was estimated to cost $172 million, but in a later draft, its cost had more than doubled to an estimated $365 million.

Through emails, Ruby attempted to show Farrell had interfered with the plan and requested they find a way to increase the amount of money sought.

Another attorney passed the blame to doctors who prescribed a high rate of opioid pills to Cabell County residents, pointing to previous presentations by O’Connell in which she had agreed they were a factor.

The trial will resume June 7.

Headstones for Black Civil War soldiers to be dedicated Saturday

IRONTON — A headstone dedication ceremony is planned for 2 p.m. Saturday at the W.D. Kelly Cemetery in Ironton for two Black soldiers who served in the Civil War.

Scott Freeman, an Ironton native living in Cincinnati, said more than 3,000 men from Lawrence County served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Between 40 and 50 of them served in the U.S. Colored Troops.

Being honored Saturday are Private John Evans and his brother-in-law Jefferson Finley. Both served in Company B, 27th U.S. Colored Infantry. New Civil War veteran headstones have been installed for the two, according to Freeman, a 1979 Ironton High School graduate.

Both are buried in unmarked graves in the old and defunct W.D. Kelley Cemetery on Shawnee Trail adjacent to U.S. 52 just northwest of Ohio 141 exit at Ironton.

“I am expecting over 100 people, many from out of town, to attend these events,” Freeman said. “Many organizations will be represented and participate. We expect 30 descendants” to attend.

The ceremony is being done by members of the Gen. William H. Lytle Camp of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. The group is based in Cincinnati, said Freeman, the group’s patriotic instructor and nominating committee chairman.

The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War is a fraternal organization dedicated to preserving the history and legacy of heroes who fought and worked to save the Union. The group was organized in 1881 and chartered by Congress in 1954.

Evans died Sept. 1, 1904, while Finley died Jan. 5, 1887. Since parking at the cemetery is limited, a shuttle service will be available by contacting Freeman at dsfreeman@fuse.net.

The grave marking ceremony is set at 2 p.m. Saturday, May 29, at the old cemetery. Dr. Kelly D. Mezurek of Walsh University will be the guest speaker during an event at the Armory Smokehouse main dining room in Ironton at 3 p.m.

Boy Scout Troop 106 in Ironton will post colors for the event.

NTSB: Pilot error caused fatal helicopter crash in Bahamas

MIAMI — Pilot error caused the helicopter crash that killed coal billionaire Chris Cline and six others in the Bahamas in 2019, federal officials said.

The two pilots’ decision to take off in the AgustaWestland AW139 over water in dark night conditions with no external visual reference resulted in spatial disorientation and the subsequent crash off the coast of Big Grand Cay, according to a report released Thursday by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Killed in the July 2019 crash were Cline, the two pilots, Cline’s adult daughter and three of her friends.

Investigators determined that the pilots were likely under external pressure from Cline, the aircraft’s owner, to complete the flight. Cline’s daughter and one of her friends were ill, and Cline wanted them taken from his private island to a Florida hospital, officials said.

Shortly after taking off, a witness saw the helicopter rotate to the left three to four times, followed by a whooshing noises and the sound of an impact, the report said. It was found upside-down in about 16 feet of water with its rotor blades separated. The wreckage of the helicopter was transported to Jacksonville for the NTSB to examine.

Cline’s death led to eulogies from coal industry leaders, government officials and academics, who described him as a visionary and generous philanthropist. He accumulated a $1.8 billion fortune from a career that he began years ago as a coal miner in southern West Virginia. Cline bought Big Grand Cay in 2014.

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With four years to allocate COVID relief funds, W.Va. lawmakers aren’t in rush for special session

CHARLESTON — Despite speculation earlier this month about a possible special session to allocate more than $500 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds, there’s no indication from West Virginia’s legislative or executive leaders that a session is imminent.

The state and local governments are receiving a combined $1.355 billion from the federal government in the latest COVID-19 relief bill, with $677 million of that going to the state.

Through a law passed in 2021 (House Bill 2014), the Legislature is responsible for deciding what happens with money the state receives from the federal government when the amount of money is more than $150 million and when it arrives while the Legislature isn’t in session. That means Republican Gov. Jim Justice will allocate the first $150 million and the GOP-led Legislature will allocate $527 million, just less than 78% of the total money the state government will receive.

When asked about a potential special legislative session to allocate the funds earlier this week, House of Delegates communications director Ann Ali said House leaders had not received any indication from Justice that a special session will happen.

Senate communications director Jacque Bland said the Senate also has not received any indication of an impending special session from the governor.

Per the terms of the American Rescue Plan, that COVID-19 relief money doesn’t have to be committed to any certain project until December 2024. State and county governments have until December 2026 to spend the money altogether.

During an interview Wednesday with Hoppy Kercheval on MetroNews’ “Talkline,” House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, said it is incumbent on lawmakers to “not be hasty” in spending the money.

The long deadline, paired with the amount of money that is “beyond anything even (late U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd) would’ve dreamed about,” puts the responsibility on elected officials to be thoughtful in how they spend the money, Hanshaw said.

“The point that needs to be understood by everybody is, this money does not mean we run out and buy a bunch of paving machines tomorrow and start paving roads in July,” Hanshaw said. “The time clock here is long. We have a lot of time on the shot clock for this money. That does mean maybe engaging more than we ever have with our political subdivisions, with municipalities and counties.”

House Majority Leader Amy Summers, R-Taylor, said Tuesday before Hanshaw’s interview that lawmakers don’t know when the governor would call them in for the session. She said they had hoped for a special session between June 6 and 8, when the Legislature will assemble for scheduled interim committee meetings.

“We know the state has an influx of federal dollars and, because of a House bill that became law, the full Legislature must provide a rightful check and balance to the spending powers of the executive, when it comes to federal funds,” Summers said.

House Minority Leader Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, said he doesn’t think it is entirely necessary to have a special session in the first weeks after the state receives the money.

Skaff is the president of HD Media, parent company of The Herald-Dispatch.

The only reason lawmakers would need to convene so soon would be if certain state agencies require legislative approval to receive money.

Otherwise, Skaff said, it wouldn’t hurt for lawmakers to wait until at least September, the next time they are scheduled to have interim committee meetings, to convene for a special session.

“There is an opportunity for us to do some things, but the last thing we need to do is to rush just to say, ‘We spent it,’” Skaff said. “I think it’s important we spend that time meeting, gathering data, gathering information as to where we can best utilize that money by having input by all the elected officials from all of the different districts and different counties.”

Hanshaw and Skaff said they are interested in addressing infrastructure issues — particularly broadband, sewer and water. Hanshaw emphasized possibly using the money for road repairs. Skaff also said the money could be used to support local businesses that experienced lost revenue and that are trying to attract employees.

Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, supports similar infrastructure measures, noting that mapping water and sewer lines and flood-mitigation efforts also could be funded with the federal money.

Expanding children’s feeding programs and further supporting efforts to curb substance abuse in the state are on Baldwin’s radar.

“The substance abuse crisis is raging like never before during COVID,” Baldwin said. “Now is the time to expand prevention and treatment programs throughout the state with available funding.”

The 2021 state law that limits when the governor can manage certain federal money was a response to the Justice administration’s disbursement of $1.2 billion in federal funds the state received in 2020 through the federal CARES Act, the first COVID-19 relief package passed by Congress.

In early summer 2020, the House was able to drum up the support of more than two-thirds of its members to petition the governor for a special session to allocate the CARES Act money, but there wasn’t enough support in the Senate to petition the governor to call the session.

Justice called lawmakers’ attempt to assemble a special session to deal with the CARES Act money “nothing but politics.”

Federal lawmakers said it had been their intention for state governments to keep 55% of the CARES Act money they were given and automatically distribute the remaining 45% among counties and municipalities to help limit the spread of COVID-19 or supplement local budgets, businesses, health departments and other entities that have suffered losses to the pandemic.

The U.S. Treasury Department provided guidelines for how the states were meant to distribute the money, largely using formulas based on population.

In West Virginia, the state government kept the full sum of the CARES Act money and distributed it to county and municipal governments as they requested it.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., in particular, was critical of how Justice administered the CARES Act money.

As of Friday, the state had a balance of a little more than $601 million of its CARES Act money, having spent more than $667.675 million in the past year, according to the state auditor’s COVID-19 funds tracking website.

The American Rescue Plan, which President Joe Biden signed into law March 11, makes clear that state governments are to distribute exact amounts of money, based on U.S. Treasury guidelines and calculations, to smaller municipalities.

Through the law, the federal government is giving money directly to counties and larger cities, bypassing state governments altogether.

The money West Virginia’s local governments will receive is separate from the $677 million the governor and Legislature are responsible for allocating.

The nine largest cities in the state will receive a combined $168 million, and the combined total West Virginia’s 55 counties will receive is $348 million. The rest of West Virginia’s municipalities will receive $162 million.

“They’re going to also be in a position to start making decisions about what their local priorities are,” Hanshaw said of local governments Wednesday. “This is going to be an involved process. It’s exciting, but it’s involved.”