CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The former CEO of a failed start-up company that solicited funding from cities and counties across West Virginia is now advising the governor's office on the state's use of $126.3 million in federal stimulus funds to expand high-speed Internet.
Keith Montgomery, who once headed iTown Communications, now works for Fairfax, Va.-based ICF International, the consulting firm hired to advise state Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin on West Virginia's broadband expansion plans. Montgomery is ICF's senior director on the assignment.
Burdette was iTown's lobbyist in 2005 and 2006, according to Ethics Commission filings. Earlier this month, he assigned Jamie Gaucher, deputy director for small business at the state Development Office, to monitor ICF's contract.
In 2005 and 2006, Gaucher traveled throughout the state with Montgomery, pitching iTown's proposed broadband services to local officials, according to news articles and meeting minutes. At one meeting, Gaucher described iTown's proposal as "revolutionary."
The company, which offered to provide government-subsidized broadband Internet services to rural towns and counties, was shut down in 2008, records show.
"We fought them. We felt like they were making promises they couldn't keep," recalled Elaine Harris, a spokeswoman for the Communications Workers of America union, which represented Verizon employees at the time. "We were already doing the work they wanted to do."
Although iTown's former backers -- Montgomery, Gaucher and Burdette -- recently reunited, Tomblin administration officials said they wouldn't consider any plan that required government subsidies to expand broadband in West Virginia.
"The governor's office does not have any interest in resurrecting iTown," said Tomblin spokeswoman Amy Goodwin.
Companies such as Frontier, Lumos Networks, Citynet, MicroLogic and Stratus Wave already are investing tens of millions of dollars to expand broadband in West Virginia, Goodwin noted.
"We are much more focused on looking at opportunities to foster their investment in West Virginia," she said. "We believe we can work together to provide competitively priced and meaningful broadband access to businesses and residents throughout West Virginia."
Contacted Wednesday, Montgomery said he was in a meeting and unable to answer questions about iTown. He did not respond to additional requests for comment.
Gaucher also would not comment or iTown or ICF's contract. He's no longer assigned to review ICF's work for the state, the governor's office confirmed Wednesday.
"Jamie is no longer working on it," Goodwin said. "He's focusing on other projects at the Development Office."
iTown folded after loan
ITown was founded in Glen Allen, Va., in 2003. Two years later, Montgomery, a Wood County native, first met Burdette, who headed the Wood County Economic Development Authority at the time.
Montgomery proposed a "public-private partnership" to bring a high-speed fiber optic broadband network to the Parkersburg area. The Wood County Commission endorsed the plan, at Burdette's request.
At the time, iTown worried that established telecommunications companies, such as Verizon, would ask state lawmakers to pass "roadblocks" that would make it difficult for iTown to carry out its West Virginia broadband plans, according to an email Burdette sent to the governor's office last week to explain his former relationship with iTown and Montgomery.
So the Glen Allen, Va.-based company hired Burdette, a former state Senate president, to lobby state legislators.
"I was retained through my company, The Burdette Group, to represent iTown during legislative sessions with the full knowledge of my board of directors at the Wood County Economic Development Authority," Burdette wrote in his email to the governor's office.
Montgomery and Gaucher also made iTown pitches in Bluefield, Beckley, Shepherdstown, Martinsburg and other cities. Montgomery solicited funding for broadband feasibility studies in those areas. Burdette said he didn't travel with Montgomery and Gaucher.
"I did not meet with any other city or county government outside Wood County for the purpose of convincing them to participate," Burdette wrote in last week's email. "I would have, because I strongly believed in the proposal, but I was not asked to and did not."
The cities of Bluefield, Parkersburg, Beckley and Vienna signed up as "local sponsors" for iTown's broadband expansion plan -- named "West Virginia's First Advanced Broadband Project." Wood, Raleigh and Fayette counties also agreed to join the project.
In 2005, Montgomery asked the state Economic Development Authority to guarantee 80 percent of a $400,000 loan with Huntington Bank. EDA members, who are appointed by the governor, rejected the request.
In 2007, U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller announced $37.9 million in federal loans to help iTown start its broadband expansion plans in Beckley.
In a press release, Rockefeller said iTown's project would bring broadband to 12,624 homes and 1,124 businesses, "creating substantial economic growth and create educational opportunities."