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Statehouse beat: A lot of road time on the state dime

CHARLESTON W.Va. -- State Emergency Services communications director Joe Gonzalez, subject of a recent legislative audit that found that he and Homeland Security Director Jimmy Gianato flouted state purchasing laws in awarding $38 million of contracts for communications towers, also evidently spends a lot of time traveling on the state dime.

Records with the state auditor's office show that since 2011, Gonzalez has turned in 97 expense reports for travel totaling more than $20,000.

Distances range from a trip to Las Vegas March 11-15 for the International Wireless Communications Expo -- total cost of $3,346, including $1,349 registration, $635 airfare, $585 lodging, $425 meals, and $246 for a rental car -- to as close as at least one overnight stay at the Days Hotel in Flatwoods, about 40 miles from Gonzalez's home in Jane Lew (in a deluxe room with jacuzzi tub, according to the billing statement).

In Las Vegas, Gonzalez stayed at the Las Vegas Hotel and Casino.

Oddly, even though Gonzalez works out of Morgantown, he flew out of Yeager Airport for the Las Vegas trip, at roundtrip airfare of $972, with baggage fees of an additional $50, when flights out of Pittsburgh presumably would have been cheaper.

Gonzalez has also billed for frequent overnight stays in Charleston (usually staying at the Hampton Inn Southridge), Beckley (also Hampton Inn), and Martinsburg (at the Comfort Inn).

At one point, Gonzalez was in Charleston from March 20-26, went back home for one night, and returned for an overnight stay on March 28.

All travel costs were paid by the Department of Health and Human Resources, where the former acting secretary was no slacker at billing the state for costs of commuting to Charleston -- until Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin put a stop to it.

***

Some weeks ago, writing about the sale of Fantasia Broadcasting's radio stations to Spectrum Radio LLC, I referenced Nick Fantasia as one of the early pioneers in broadcasting in the state, and as a former longtime state delegate, which is how most readers in Charleston knew him.

Unfortunately, Fantasia's son, Nick L. Fantasia, said those references re-stirred partisan rhetoric about the deal to sell the four stations being politically motivated. (The state Jobs Investment Trust owns about a 25 percent share of Spectrum Radio.)

The idea that the elder Fantasia exercised any political influence in the deal is, naturally, absurd, considering that he left the Legislature in 1998 and died in 2005.

However, the junior Fantasia said there's even rhetoric out there that sale of the four stations was a Democratic scheme to wrest West Virginia University sports broadcasts away from Republican John Raese's radio empire.

(Heck, Raese had multiple opportunities to retain WVU broadcasts on his radio stations, but allowed his ego and hubris to get the best of him.)

***

Like all good rail fans, Friends of the Cardinal Chairman Chuck Riecks gets riled up when members of Congress decry million-dollar funding for passenger rail as "subsidies" but don't use the same term for billion-dollar federal underwriting for highways and air transportation.

Regarding last week's decision by the state, and subsequently, the Kanawha County Commission, to fund the $39,000 a week cost of keeping Air National Guard firefighters on duty at Yeager Airport to assure continued commercial air service, Riecks commented: "I guess we had better not call this a 'subsidy.' Seems as how in today's political climate that is reserved strictly for passenger rail."

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The parade of legislative fundraisers tied to monthly interim meetings in Charleston seems endless, and some of the latest announced are for: Sen. Ron Miller, D-Greenbrier, on Nov. 18, at Tiano & O'Dell, Capitol Street; Sen. Donald Cookman, D-Hamsphire, Nov. 19, at Appalachian Power Park; Delegate Justin Marcum, D-Mingo, Dec. 9; and a campaign kick-off for Delegate Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, for state Senate, Dec. 10, at the Marriott.

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FYI, a recent item in Readers' Voice decrying a 63 percent increase in PEIA premiums had no basis in reality.

In fact, the PEIA Finance Board doesn't even meet until next week to tentatively set 2014-15 premium rates, and significant premium hikes are not anticipated going into that meeting.

***

Lucy Suchy, who has been with the Ethics Commission since its inception in 1989, is retiring Nov. 30, but will be working part time as a contract employee, to help with lobbyists' registrations, financial disclosure reports, etc.

Meanwhile, Norbert Federspiel, who has done a great job helping expand community corrections programs into 49 counties as director of the state Division of Justice and Community Service, is retiring at the end of the year.

***

Finally, belated happy 99th birthday to former congressman and longtime secretary of state Ken Hechler, who not only hit that milestone Sept. 20, but also got married to longtime companion Carol Kitzmiller a month earlier. They're living in Hampshire County.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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