Editorials, Opinion

If CARES money used appropriately, audit should turn up no problems

On Monday, State Senate Finance Chair Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, sent a letter to the U.S. Treasury Office of Inspector General asking it to potentially look into whether Gov. Jim Justice and his administration mishandled CARES Act monies.  

At issue are $28,375,985.34 in CARES money that ultimately went to non-COVID-19 related activities, like $10 million toward completing Marshall University’s new baseball stadium, as well as an unspecified amount for a minibus for Appalachian Bible College. Tarr also contends that CARES funds were improperly used for “Do It for Babydog” sweepstakes payouts.  

The governor’s general counsel, Berkeley Bentley, previously testified before the Senate Finance Committee that everything had been handled appropriately. He said the state had incurred COVID-related expenses through the Department of Corrections, which the state reimbursed to the department. When CARES funds became available, Bentley said, the state reimbursed itself for those expenses, meaning the CARES dollars were now state dollars. Since these were now state dollars, they could be used for whatever the state (read: the Justice administration) desired, and it was easiest to transfer the funds into the Governor’s Office Gifts, Grants and Donations Fund. The expenses Tarr questions in his letter were paid from this discretionary account.  

The governor’s chief of staff, Brian Abraham, has publicly said calling on the Inspector General to investigate the state’s use of funds is a terrible idea, and it could result in West Virginia having a harder time getting future federal grants. 

If multiple lawmakers, including the state treasurer, have questions regarding how government funds have been spent, an investigation, or at least an audit, are in order.  

When the Senate Finance Committee first began discussing the unusual transfer, several senators wondered why, if the expenses supposedly came from the Department of Corrections, the CARES money wasn’t reimbursed to the DOC. We would tend to agree. While we understand the DOC had supposedly been reimbursed by the state already, we also know that there’s an ongoing staffing crisis in DOC facilities — so much so, the governor declared it an emergency. We would think COVID-relief dollars would have been directed toward solving problems exacerbated by the COVID pandemic.  

The $10 million toward a baseball field and what we assume was several thousand dollars for a minibus for a bible college would definitely be questionable CARES expenditures. (The “Do It for Babydog” payouts might count, since the sweepstakes were meant to increase vaccination rates.)  

If everything is as Bentley says and the CARES dollars have been appropriately used, then any investigation or audit should go quickly and smoothly, and there shouldn’t be anything for the Justice administration to worry about. But if the state has not dotted all its i’s and crossed all its t’s, some or all of that $28 million may have to be paid back to the federal government. And the state could be in a lot of trouble for misusing federal funds.