Ousted GOP Chair Cornelius Prevails In Court
CHARLESTON –Nearly three years after being removed from his positions, Rob Cornelius, the former chairman and elected member of the Wood County Republican Executive Committee, got his day in court Thursday.
Kanawha County Circuit Court Judge Joanna Tabit ruled Thursday in favor of Cornelius after he filed suit over his removal from the Wood County Republican Executive Committee by former West Virginia Republican Executive Committee Chairwoman Melody Potter in 2019.
“The removal process was fundamentally, in my view, unfair,” Tabit said. “It was fundamentally unfair because it subverted the intention of the voters of Wood County. I don’t think it is appropriate for a party chairperson to unilaterally remove an elected official from office when the voters of Wood County have elected that official through the democratic process. That, in my view, is problematic.”
Tabit held a virtual hearing Thursday afternoon in Cornelius’ case against Secretary of State Mac Warner and Potter.
Tabit’s ruling restores Cornelius as a member of the county committee and as chairperson. Tabit also ordered the Secretary of State to accept a list of county executive committee members submitted by Cornelius after Potter made changes to the committee’s membership.
“We need to remove that list that has been submitted to the Secretary of State because I don’t believe that list was proper because there wasn’t proper procedure that was followed,” Tabit said.
“Mr. Cornelius should be reinstated to the executive committee and was duly voted as chair of the executive committee by those members of the Wood County executive committee, the previous members — those members that were elected in 2018 — and I think that is what needs reflected on the website,” Tabit continued.
“Because of the length of time that has passed, there’s obviously been different members appointed by the (committee) members, not just what Ms. Potter did at the time,” said Andrew Dornbos, attorney for the state Republican Party. “The county executive committee has obviously been functioning during this time period and the make-up has changed in the meantime. Procedurally I’m not sure where to go.”
“That’s why your client shouldn’t have removed him and shouldn’t have submitted her own roster,” Tabit responded.
Cornelius filed a writ of mandamus Aug. 19, 2019, against Potter and Warner. The case has been delayed several times as attorneys for both sides conducted discovery. The COVID-19 pandemic also caused multiple delays in the case.
Cornelius asked the court to force the Secretary of State’s Office to disregard a roster of Wood County Republican Executive Committee members submitted by Potter, who removed him as an elected member of the committee and as the chairman elected by his fellow committee members.
Cornelius asked the court to force the Secretary of State to accept his roster of committee members. He also asked for a declaratory judgment against Potter regarding his rights under state code to serve in elected office, his rights under the county committee’s bylaws and whether Potter and the Secretary of State’s Office broke any laws in his removal.
Potter informed the Wood County committee members earlier in 2019 that she removed Cornelius as county chairman and as an elected committee member representing District A5. Potter cited the bylaws of the state party which give state party chairs authority to fill vacancies on county, senatorial, judicial, circuit and congressional Republican executive committees “or taking what other action may be provident.”
“(Potter) is just doing what she wants to do, and the voters of Wood County have elected him to this position,” Tabit said. “So, one person, if I am to follow your argument, has the discretion to remove someone that the voters have elected to a rightful position?”
“Following the bylaws, Ms. Potter at the time felt that was in the best interests of the Republican Party given the actions that Mr. Cornelius was taking,” Dornbos said. “It was permitted in the bylaws.”
“Where in the bylaws does it say she can do that?” Tabit asked.
Cornelius was replaced as county chairman with Roger Conley, a former Vienna City Council member who was elected to the House of Delegates in 2020. Later that month, the Secretary of State’s Office agreed to publish online an updated roster of members of the Wood County Republican Executive Committee, which excluded Cornelius.
Anthony Majestro, an attorney for Cornelius, said the state party went beyond its authority in bylaws in removing Cornelius, who was duly elected, appearing on a primary ballot in 2018.
Potter said her reasons for removing Cornelius included alleged acts of party disunity and mismanagement caused by Cornelius. She also accused Cornelius of conducting a smear campaign against her and harassment through social media.
Cornelius, a long-time Republican political operative, has a long history of criticizing Gov. Jim Justice, who won election as governor in 2016 as a Democrat, but switched to Republican in 2017 at the urging of then-president Donald Trump. The relationship between Potter, who replaced former state party chairman Conrad Lucas in 2018, and Cornelius soured after Potter’s embrace of Justice following his party flip.
“My understanding is he took some actions via social media and things of that nature that were contrary to the beliefs of the Republican Party,” Dornbos said. “They were direct attacks against Ms. Potter personally, calling her names that I’m not going to repeat. Also, I believe, there were direct attacks against the Governor subsequent to his political party affiliation change.”
“There is a First Amendment,” Tabit said.
Potter resigned as state party chair more than a year ago, citing the health of family members as her reason for leaving the leadership post. The state party executive committee elected Mark Harris, the former chief of staff at the Beckley VA Medical Center, as the new state party chairman in a controversial vote last March.
Conley was unavailable for comment.