State Government, U.S. President, West Virginia Legislature

Senate Finance chair seeks federal inquiry into Justice office transfer of $28M COVID funds into governor’s discretionary account

MORGANTOWN – State Senate Finance chair Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, has written to the U.S. Treasury Office of Inspector General to investigate whether the transfer of $28.375 million in unappropriated CARES Act funds to a discretionary account of Gov. Jim Justice violated any federal law, violations of the West Virginia Ethics Act, or other guidance provided by the U.S. Treasury.

Tarr says in his Monday letter that his inquiry stems from a Feb. 3 Finance Committee meeting where they heard from governor’s General Counsel Berkeley Bentley about the transfer, which committee members regarded as suspicious. The governor’s office justified the transfer as related to Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation COVID expenses, but state Treasurer J.B. McCuskey regarded the transfer as highly unusual.

Tarr said, “At least $10,106,000 of the $28,375,985.34 transferred from the CARES Act fund were not related to necessary expenditures incurred due to the public health emergency” and were not incurred during the mandated time period of March 1, 2020 through Dec, 31, 2021.

Other expenditures from the account included Do It for Babydog sweepstakes winners and a minbus for Appalachian Bible College, Tarr said.

“Hence, the governor converted at least more than $10,000,000 … to giveaways not even remotely connected to COVID-19 and claimed it as reimbursement for Department of Corrections expenses that had previously been reimbursed. Given this information, is federal investigation warranted?”

MetroNews’ Brad McElhinny reported at the time of the committee meeting that that the state faced a deadline to spend the remaining $28 million from federal CARES Act funds.

The state incurred that amount in costs for pandemic-related expenses for corrections and homeland security, he said. Then the state reimbursed its own expenses by using the federal COVID money.

Facing the deadline, Bentley told senators, the administration found it simplest to transfer the money into the Governor’s Office Gifts, Grants and Donations Fund.

“Once allocated, those CARES-eligible expenses — the $28.3 million — became state dollars, for lack of a better word,” Bentley said. “We spent the CARES money on CARES-eligible purposes, reimbursing the state. That becomes subject to state law, not the federal CARES requirements. … When the state reimburses itself, there is no direction under federal or state law that directs where that money goes.”

Tarr’s letter, and copies of attachments – an email chain and a governor’s office memorandum on its posture concerning federal COVID funds and legislative appropriation – were also sent to the West Virginia Ethics Commission and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia.

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