All last fall, televised political attack ads reverberated among the hills and hollers of West Virginia. It was part of a bitter fight between the two parties, and Republicans managed to ride to victory on a national wave of disapproval with politics in Washington D.C.
The results were seen as a Republican revolution, and Democrats lost control of the state Legislature for the first time in eight decades. But in the Mountain State, there was another story underneath it all.
The state was awash in new political spending, after the secretary of state decided it could no longer enforce the existing limits on contributions to independent political groups. The move came as part of a settlement in a lawsuit that had been filed in federal court arguing that the limits were unconstitutional.
“To continue to press what is an unwinnable position,” Secretary of State Natalie Tennant said in a statement at the time, “will do nothing but run up the tab for which the state will be responsible.”
As it turned out, the Republican victory came in spite of the spending, not because of it — Democrats outspent Republicans nearly two-to-one in the state’s legislative races. But Tennant’s decision unleashed a torrent of spending that transformed the state’s politics and undermined what had been relatively muscular campaign finance laws.
This new reality, combined with the state’s weak open record laws, has resulted in West Virginia earning an overall grade of D, ranking the state 17th out of 50 in the State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven assessment of state government accountability and transparency by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity.
That represents little change from 2012, the first time the project was conducted, when the Mountain State earned a D+. The two scores are not directly comparable, however, due to changes made to improve and update the project and its methodology, such as eliminating the category for redistricting, a process that generally occurs only once every 10 years. The highest grade, a C, went to Alaska, while California and Connecticut each received a C-; the other 47 states received D’s and F’s.
Allegations of involuntary campaign contributions
Over the past few years, a series of reports in state and national media have detailed allegations of how Murray Energy, one of the nation’s leading coal mine operators and an employer of thousands in West Virginia, had been pressuring its employees to make political contributions to designated lists of candidates and to the company’s political action committee.
Murray Energy general counsel Mike McKown responded by saying that the firm’s approach to political contributions complies with federal laws and that CEO Robert E. Murray merely encouraged his employees to make contributions.
But in September 2014, a West Virginia shift foreman named Jean Cochenour filed suit in state circuit court, charging that she had been fired from her job at Murray because she had refused to make campaign contributions to the firm’s designated Republican candidates. In a statement, Murray Energy described Cochenour’s allegations as “wholly without merit, and we will vigorously defend against her frivolous claims.” The parties have since reached a settlement.
Either way, Murray and its employees have become prolific donors on the national level, pumping $3.6 million into national races since 2010, according the Center for Responsive Politics, with nearly all of that going to Republicans. In 2014, Murray Energy donated $250,000 to a pro-business, super PAC called Moving West Virginia Forward, which turned around and spent the money on mass mailings and phone calls in support of state legislative candidates, according to filings with the secretary of state.
However, there’s no indication that the secretary of state’s office initiated any investigation into the allegations of forced contributions to state legislative races. A spokesman for the office said state law forbids officials from commenting on any investigations into campaign misconduct. The only time the agency makes an investigation public is after it has turned the case over to prosecutors and charges have been filed.
“It’s impossible for anyone to know whether the secretary of state conducted an investigation and found a candidate faultless or whether they just blew it off,” said Jack Rogers, a retired lawyer who spent 10 years as legislative staff counsel and 20 years as executive director of the state Public Defender Services agency.
Murray’s spending, however, was just one part of a much larger trend. Election spending more than tripled across state-level races from 2010 to 2014, to nearly $9.3 million, according to state records.
“I’m not sure any of us can survive this huge corporate spending,” said H. Truman Chafin, a former Democratic state senator who now practices law in Williamson, a town of 3,200 residents on the banks of the Tug Fork river in the heart of coal country. “And the sad thing to me is that the decent, competent people that we desperately need have no interest in going into politics.”
Mountain State wins – and loses
In the past few years, though, there have been some significant improvements in West Virginia on the accountability front. In 2014, the state Ethics Commission began conducting random audits of lobbyist spending reports for the first time since 2011.
But the state still has a long way to go regarding access to public information. West Virginia has no agency capable of enforcing its freedom of information act, and there’s no way to appeal a rejection short of going to court. Last year, for example, the Charleston Gazette was forced to sue the state attorney general’s office after it refused to produce records related to a potential conflict of interest for the attorney general, whose wife was lobbying for a pharmaceutical company that the state was suing. In September, a state judge ruled that the attorney general did not have to turn over the records.
West Virginia legislators are also exploring the creation of an independent inspector general’s office that would be empowered to investigate corruption, waste and fraud in all state agencies. In other states, inspector general’s offices have helped state governments identify millions of dollars in wasted taxpayer funds through improper contracting and outright fraud.
Lawmakers have said they expect to introduce a bill in January that would create such an office.