Tomblin Serious About DHHR Probe

WHEELING – Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said Wednesday he won’t “tolerate wrongdoing by any state employee” as allegations of defamation, gender discrimination and corruption have arisen within the Department of Health and Human Resources.

“I want everyone to know that I take very seriously allegations relating to potential criminal activity and those relating to whistleblowing,” Tomblin said. “Both are serious.

“It is clear that the authorities are investigating this matter, and I hope they get to the bottom of this in a speedy and responsible manner,” he added. “I want to make it clear that I will not tolerate wrongdoing by any state employee.”

Neither Tomblin nor his office indicated Wednesday whether he would involve himself in the investigation or lawsuit.

Three West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources employees last week notified state officials they planned to file a whistleblower lawsuit against the agency, which alleged defamation, invasion of privacy and Ethics Act violations against acting DHHR Director Rocco Fucillo.

The attorneys, Susan Perry and Jennifer Taylor, along with John Law, assistant secretary for communications, have been “reassigned ” without pay since mid-July.

But investigators Tuesday secured a search warrant for the employees’ office, phone and computer records. The investigators now allege the three conspired to steer an advertising contract to a particular vendor. A lawyer for the employee, Walt Auvil, predicts all three will be vindicated.

“It seems more in the form of a press release than a search warrant,” he said. “But, we certainly look forward to a full investigation.”

Calls to the DHHR were referred to Will Jones, assistant attorney general for the DHHR Bureau for Children and Families. He said it was the agency’s policy to not comment on pending litigation or personnel matters.

The employees were placed on leave in July just as their department awarded an advertising contract to Ohio-based Fahlgren Mortine. While a one-year contract with a face value of $473,000, it can be extended – and its value can increase – if other agencies wish to join in it to seek similar services from the winning vendor.

Fahlgren Mortine barely edged out an in-state firm, The Arnold Agency, in securing the contract despite submitting a more expensive bid. The search warrant request submitted by State Police Cpl. P.T. Kelly alleges the three officials believed that the other vendor should have prevailed. While lower bids receive higher scores under the contract process, a bid’s technical details account for 70 percent of its overall score.

Among other actions, the officials repeatedly tried to second-guess or overrule other department staffers assigned to evaluate and score the bids, which were submitted by a total of four firms, Kelly alleged. The Arnold Agency had won the previous version of the contract, and Kelly alleged the three officials also conspired to extend that contact for two months as they disputed the bid scoring.

The dispute arose just as Health and Human Resources Secretary Michael Lewis resigned after requiring surgery for an undisclosed medical condition. Tomblin appointed Fucillo, a longtime department official and lawyer, to succeed Lewis in late June.

Fucillo has since asked his office’s inspector general to review the contract. The warrant document alleges that at least one of the officials, Law, repeatedly pressed Fucillo about the contract before all three were placed on leave.