West Virginia Governor Jim Justice Fires Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher

West Virginia Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher has resigned at the request of Gov. Jim Justice, the governor’s office announced today.

Though Justice praised Thrasher’s work in economic development, he had been critical of the commerce agency’s handling of a $150 million program, RISE West Virginia, intended to help victims of June 2016 flooding in southern and central counties. That initiative, formerly under Thrasher’s department, has been transferred to the state adjutant general, Maj. Gen. James Hoyer.

Thrasher has “done a solid job in the area of economic development,” the governor stated in a press release today.

He added that Thrasher “expressed to me that recent media attention had distracted from what he believed was his core mission, economic development and business opportunities for West Virginia.”

Among achievements during Thrasher’s tenure was the announcement last year that Chinese interests would invest $83.7 billion in the state, primarily in energy projects, during the next 20 years. A natural gas-fired power plant in the Northern Panhandle may be part of that investment.

But for several weeks, the relationship between Justice and Thrasher has been strained, because of delays by RISE in distributing money to flood victims. For a time earlier this year, the governor called a “pause” in the RISE program, while his administration looked into problems with it.

Delays in helping flood victims had been a concern in Washington, too, where U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development officials had been critical of the slow pace of handing out the nearly $150 million in federal funds involved.

In announcing transfer of authority over the RISE program to Hoyer, the governor’s office cited allegations of mismanagement under the commerce agency. One news release pledged that “there will be terminations” of personnel in that department, though Thrasher’s name was not mentioned.

In looking into RISE operations under the commerce department, the governor said in May that he had “uncovered waste and abuse and stopped the state from losing $8 million that can be used to help our flood victims.” And he accused Thrasher’s department of misleading the public regarding progress in flood recovery efforts. At one point, Justice cited a press release issued by the commerce agency last November, in which Thrasher was quoted as saying the flood recovery project had aided 1,100 people. “That is totally inaccurate,” the governor said. In fact, by last month, RISE had handed out only about $1.1 million of the nearly $150 million in federal funds.

Last week, Justice commented that “there needs to be realignment within the Commerce Department. There absolutely are shortcomings and pitfalls that have happened within Commerce.” A few days later, in another press conference, he was asked about plans for realignment. His response was, “If all we’re trying to accomplish here is to create a food fight or decide, ‘Are we going to fire Woody Thrasher or not?’ I mean, is that really what we should be doing?”

In making his announcement today, Justice did not cite a reason for Thrasher’s departure. He did say, however, that, “I hope this allows us to turn our attention to the full recovery of all of the victims of the 2016 flood.”