Senate probes COVID funds to use for MU baseball stadium
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - With an opening pitch in September and a check for $13.8 million, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice contributed your tax dollars to help Marshall University build a long-awaited baseball stadium.
Now it’s revealed that most of that cash was once federal dollars the state received to fight COVID.
“The question becomes, ‘Is this something that is appropriate?’” Sen. Eric Tarr asked at a special Senate Finance Committee held Friday. “I think that’s something I think this committee wants and needs to get to the bottom of.”
That topic was agenda item number one Friday.
The baseball contribution, actually part of a much large transfer as Justice moved more than $28 million in COVID relief to his Gifts, Grants and Donations Fund.
That Sept. 30, 2022, transaction just beat a federal deadline to spend the last of the state’s COVID allotment. Doing so ensured that West Virginia didn’t have to pay back any unused money.
The Governor’s Office contends that once those funds switched accounts, it was no longer COVID money, but state money available for use.
The governor’s chief attorney, Berkeley Bentley, told senators the $28 million reimbursed expenses from early in the pandemic as the state’s jails and prisons made adjustments to combat COVID before federal assistance arrived.
Tarr, R-Putnam, mentioned staffing issues and equipment needs in his questioning of Bentley, who serves as general counsel for the Governor’s Office.
“When you transfer the last $28 million, which doesn’t come close to covering any of those corrections expenses, the governor decides to put it into a discretionary account and then start putting it into Astroturf on baseball fields,” Tarr inquired of Bentley. “I want to ask you, what part of that is appropriate?”
“When the state reimburses itself, there is no direction under federal or state law that directs where that money goes,” Bentley replied.
A report by the state auditor shows just one percent of the reimbursement went to corrections, while a more than a third was given to the baseball stadium.
“When we got down to the end of it, our role as it relates to the Governor’s Office isn’t -- we can’t supplant our legal opinion of what their appropriations are if there’s a rational basis for them, and it was close,” Auditor J.B. McCuskey told the committee.
Tarr, who serves as chairman of the Finance Committee, says its members will send a letter requesting further review by the inspector general for the U.S. Treasury Department.
Nearly $18 million from the COVID transfer remains in the governor’s gifts account. Bentley told senators he was not aware of how that money will be spent.
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