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The Pointers' Darryl Taylor (11), from left, goes up to block a layup from the Dragon's Jacob Polcyn (0) during a boy's high school basketball game on Saturday, February 20, 2021, in Proctorville.

Morrisey team raising funds to pay back AG for his campaign debts

CHARLESTON — West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey is once again asking for financial support to recoup his campaign debts. But if donors didn’t read the fine print, they might not realize it.

Last week, Team Morrisey, the attorney general’s election campaign team, sent out an email with the subject line “AG Morrisey Survey Request: Impeachment.”

“I want to ensure that you have a platform to raise your concerns and make your opinions known. Let me know what you think,” the body of the email reads, with a link to the three-question survey.

The email also includes a link to donate $25 to “Defend America.” The donation page says that Team Morrisey will take on the “over-reaching” Biden administration and its “far-left policies” with the donor’s help.

But like in recent Morrisey fundraising campaigns, the fine print explains what the donation would really be going toward — retiring his campaign debt.

The first $1,000 donated from an individual will go to the debt retirement of Morrisey’s 2012 general election campaign. The next $2,000 goes to his 2016 campaign. Then, the next $2,800 goes to his 2020 campaign.

The next $5,000 from an individual will be allocated to Blue and Gold Fund, a political action committee. The next $10,000 goes to the West Virginia Republican Party.

If an individual exceeds the contribution limit as set by state and federal law, the excess funds will be distributed among the committees.

Joint contribution limits are doubled. Donors can also designate where they would like their contribution to go.

“Donations to Team Morrisey are transparent and every donor may determine what account to donate to,” said Charlie Spies, counsel for Team Morrisey, in a statement. “Team Morrisey welcomes support for efforts to push back against media bias and the Biden Administration’s job-killing agenda.”

According to campaign filings from the fourth quarter of 2020, Morrisey’s campaign still owes Morrisey (the person) $1.2 million from the 2012 election, just over half a million from 2016 and just over $50,000 from 2020.

Both federal and state law permit political candidates to take on significant debt by loaning money to their campaigns. What tends to happen next equates to “a legal form of money laundering,” Brendan Fischer of the Campaign Legal Center told The Associated Press.

Morrisey is among just a few wealthy candidates who use the regulation. Others include former President Donald Trump, who requested campaign contributions to pay back his 2016 debt and again in 2020. Similar to Morrisey’s contribution request, donors had to read the fine print of Trump’s request, or else they would have believed their money was going straight to help the president’s election legal battle.

Marshall's Obinna Anochili-Killen (25) throws down a dunk as the Herd takes on Middle Tennessee during an NCAA men’s basketball game on Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021, at the Cam Henderson Center in Huntington.

COVID precaution or excuse? Lawmakers balance legislating in a pandemic

CHARLESTON — The West Virginia Republican supermajority in the Legislature is quickly moving bills this year, citing a possible COVID-19 outbreak, but the minority is questioning the motive.

Due to the pandemic, the Legislature is taking several precautions to hopefully reduce the risk of spread in the Capitol. Committee meetings are limited to larger rooms with less seating for press and other guests. The rooms are sanitized after each meeting. The chambers are being utilized more and the galleries are open for members to get even more distance if they desire. Video conferencing is being utilized, in the Senate at least.

Public access inside the Capitol is limited. The public may not sit in the galleries to watch the sessions, nor may they visit committee meeting rooms. The public may make appointments to meet with a lawmaker in person, but that’s the only way they are getting inside the people’s house.

“I think it’s going pretty well,” said House Majority Whip Del. Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson. “We’ve tried to do our very best to safeguard all those here at the Capitol, not only members but staff. We have done our best to maintain social distancing. However, we want to make sure we maintain transparency. We continue to stream all of our meetings so folks can follow the proceedings.”

Masks are also required of everyone inside the building, but there’s a catch. The type of mask isn’t specified, and a faction of conservatives — in the House, Senate and members of staff — have taken liberties with the rule by wearing a mesh mask.

Last week, a photo of Sen. Bob Karnes wearing a mesh face mask during a Senate Transportation Committee meeting Feb. 16 attracted some attention on social media.

HD Media reached out to the spokesperson for the Senate for comment from Karnes late Friday.

Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, and Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, each said senators who refuse to wear face coverings are mocking public health standards and putting their colleagues at the Capitol, many of whom have not had access to the COVID-19 vaccine, in danger.

Baldwin said he’s had an ongoing dialogue with Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, about his concerns, saying Blair has made good effort to navigate the waters of COVID-19 protocols.

“I think 90% of the folks are doing the right thing and following guidelines, wearing the masks, staying a distance from others,” Baldwin said. “Where we have the real issue (is) with the people who are not compliant, the 10%. And it’s not in the chamber. It’s outside of the chamber before the session and right after session; it’s in the hallways and in the offices.”

Senate Clerk Lee Cassis said things in the Senate had “overall gone fine.” He said the guidelines the Senate adopted said members had to wear face coverings but don’t define face coverings or refer to any other public health guidelines, like those from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for guidelines about face coverings.

Senators who don’t want to wear a mask during Senate sessions may sit in the back of the chamber, but they are required to put on face coverings when they return to their desks to vote.

Stollings, a family care physician by trade, said he tended to two of his regular patients who died of COVID-19 this year, saying that not wearing a proper face covering is disrespectful to West Virginians who have died of COVID-19 and their families.

“I think they’re trying to make a point that they’re free to not have to wear masks,” Stollings said. “Of course, that doesn’t show respect to each other; that doesn’t show respect to people that work in the Capitol that haven’t been vaccinated yet; and that doesn’t respect people’s families that work in the Capitol.”

In the House, Espinosa didn’t comment on the mesh masks specifically but said from what he’s seen, most members are not abiding by the requirement.

“We’ve tried to leave it up to individual members to wear the type of mask they feel most comfortable in,” Espinosa said. “We’ve tried not to micromanage that.”

House Minority Leader Del. Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, and Assistant Minority Whip Del. Lisa Zukoff, D-Marshall, also called the mesh masks a mockery.

“I want them to look in the eyes of the West Virginians who have lost a loved one. And they think wearing a mask is inconveniencing them? Come on,” Skaff said.

Skaff said a COVID-19 outbreak is possible and he worries what those lawmakers who refuse to wear masks on the floor are doing in their own communities. But he said it’s not a good enough reason to ram bills through without proper vetting.

While all Senate meetings are livestreamed with video and audio, the House has opted to only use audio for committee meetings, even when the meeting is in the House chamber. Zukoff said she sent a letter to House Speaker Roger Hanshaw requesting the use of video livestreaming, but she hasn’t gotten a response.

The House also uses less video conferencing than the Senate. While most are testifying to the Senate committees by video, the House is still inviting guests to testify in person. Because of the restrictions, Skaff says this leads to the majority getting to pick and choose who gets to speak, controlling the narrative.

“(Last week) we passed (House Bill) 2007. It impacts some 100,000 working West Virginians,” Skaff said. “They didn’t consult any of those (professional) boards. Come to find less than 24 hours before the committee meeting an email was sent out letting them know this was on the agenda. During a winter storm, mind you. During COVID. My concern as the minority leader is they are using COVID-19 protocols as a way to keep people in the dark.”

Skaff said he hoped the governor relaxing COVID-19 restrictions in the community would lead to restrictions being loosened in the Capitol regarding the public.

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

Espinosa said a lot of work was done on bills prior to the session, and said they are working in a deliberate way to make the session as efficient as possible. He said they have already shown they are willing to send bills back to committee or double reference them if the need arises.

“I want to emphasize the public can continue to reach out to members,” he said. “I’ve spoken to a number of constituents. I’ve gotten emails, scheduled virtual meetings. I and colleagues in between meetings are participating in a lot of those virtual activities. I am doing my very best to remain accessible so the public can weigh in.”

Overworked and overwhelmed, Cabell volunteer firefighters answer the call

BARBOURSVILLE — A firefighter is always on duty, so it wasn’t out of the ordinary when Charlie Fields, deputy chief of the Ohio River Road Volunteer Fire Department, jumped into action to help others who had crashed after wrecking his own vehicle on the icy Big Ben Bowen Highway outside Barboursville last Sunday.

What was surprising for Fields was when, minutes later, a truck traveling an estimated 40 mph crashed into a vehicle he was standing outside of while helping its occupants.

The call was one of more than 550 that Cabell County volunteer fire departments have responded to in the nine days following the first winter storm to hit the area late Feb. 10.

Barboursville Volunteer Fire Department Deputy Chief Andrew Frazier said the number of calls the departments have responded to is the highest they’ve seen. For Barboursville VFD, it’s higher than the number that followed the derecho of 2012 or the snowstorm brought by Hurricane Sandy later that same year.

With thousands of Cabell County residents still without power, the end is nowhere in sight for first responders, who are experiencing their own personal hardships at home. But dedication to their volunteer work helps them persevere, Fields said.

The crash and aftermath

Fields said he first realized there was a problem on the road about three-quarters of the way down when he saw headlights facing him as he reached the crest of a hill.

“As I was finding out what happened, I just happened to look up and I saw this car come over the hill faster than he should have been doing,” he said. “I’m thinking he must have hit his brakes, because he started sliding sideways.”

The driver of the vehicle was not from West Virginia and was not used to driving in icy conditions, Fields said. He told the occupants to brace themselves and did the first thing he could think of — jump on the car’s hood. While he was thrown off and hurt, it might have saved him from being pinned or run over. He said he had no regrets in his decision.

Even after that happened, he was trying to help the others involved.

“It’s in your blood. Once it gets there, it’s hard to not continue going,” he said. “Once we are there, we are there to help people and protect them. We don’t remember we have to check on and take care of ourselves.”

He has continued his duties since.

‘No hesitation’

On Wednesday afternoon, a woman posted on social media concerns for her hilltop neighbors whose driveway was covered in trees downed by recent storms. Within minutes, Frazier responded by sending a crew to check on the residents and offered to help clear the driveway.

Frazier said it’s calls like that that can mean the difference between life and death.

“The guys are tired, but then you see a message like that and you speak up and say, ‘I need two or three people to go there’ and there’s no hesitation,” he said. “They just step up to the plate and try to get it done.”

Several members have been living at their home stations with their family because of outages at home. Some departments, like Ona, are without electric and are running on a generator. While suffering their own hardships, the members are still responding, Frazier said.

“We really haven’t had a problem. We’ve had a good turnout with our members, and other departments have as well,” he said, “which is great, because that means you can start handling multiple calls at the same time.”

Fields is one of those they have helped. His fellow firefighters came to help him get his generator going when he was unable to because of his condition after the wreck. He is now doing the same for others.

By the numbers

The seven VFDs for Cabell County responded to an estimated 581 to 646 calls from Feb. 10 to the early morning of Feb. 19 — loosely about 20% to 25% of the number of calls the departments have averaged together in years past.

The calls range from checking for downed power lines, to cutting down trees, clearing roads or any weather-related needs. They also must respond to the typical calls, such as reported fires or car wrecks.

Barboursville has responded to 145 to 170 calls; it averages 950 for an entire year. Ohio River Road responded to 140 calls, 103 for downed trees and 16 for power lines; it averages 350 a year. Green Valley has responded to 100 to 125 calls and averages 360 calls a year.

Salt Rock has been in the field 50 times for the storm, while it averages around 125 calls in a year. Ona has responded to 55 to 60 calls, about one-third of the 175 to 200 they average a year. In eastern Cabell County, Milton has responded to 71 storm-related calls compared to 600 average calls a year. Culloden has been on 20 to 30 calls when it averages 120 a year.

Overworked and overwhelmed

Fields said the work is overwhelming.

“It’s been nonstop cutting trees,” he said. “No sooner than when they get trees cut, on the way out they are getting trees cut again.”

Both Frazier and Fields agreed the most eerie situation was hearing trees crackling and falling around them as they attempted to clear roads. Fields said the volunteers could cut down trees trying to get to a house and have to cut more just to go back the way they came.

Frazier said in the darkness it was hard to tell if one would hit you. One day crews were on Blue Sulphur Road clearing the area when they got in a situation where the chain saw chain broke and trees were falling around them. Another crew had to get to them so they could drive to safety, he said.

“It looks like a war zone out there when you go down some of these roads,” he said. “Everyone is out there putting 150% in as far as getting these trees removed. Sometimes we can only do so much because we are restricted (in some situations).”

Downed power lines and other hazards slow them down.

As the storms move away and the departments start to catch up on work, the members are hoping they can get back to normal, or whatever normal is with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Lending a helping hand

Frazier said the focus is now helping the power company, other utility companies and contractors in any way they can.

“We know it’s rough and everybody has gone through it throughout the storm, but please have patience. They will get everything turned back on,” he said.

He said it’s crucial no one be on roads during storms like what were seen last week. He also warned people should stay away from downed power lines or anything that might seem out of the ordinary.

“I know all the fire departments felt when they were trying to access the situation and cut trees down, there was just so much unnecessary traffic on the roads. That causes a whole other problem,” he said.

Even with the few people making it harder, seeing the community give back helps, Frazier said. Businesses have dropped off food and residents have jumped in and worked alongside the VFD crews to help do the work.

Frazier said the little things like those matter tremendously.