Underwood stands by Methodists' link to threat
Gov. Cecil Underwood made it clear Thursday afternoon that he believes his own church shares the blame for a bomb threat that forced the state Capitol to be evacuated in early July.
Underwood said a Methodist conference resolution expressing concern about mountaintop removal coal mining encouraged the anonymous threat.
"That's what I said," Underwood said, declining to back off a statement made earlier in the day.
"I think passing resolutions with no reasoned debate within a high-emotional issue inflames public opinion," the governor said after a photo opportunity. "Public bodies have to take responsibility for their rhetoric."
Underwood said the language of the bomb threat letter received by his office mirrored that of the Methodist resolution - but State Police have refused to release the entire text of the bomb threat letter.
The governor dismissed any suggestion that taking on the church where he taught Sunday school would hurt him politically.
"My point is not to pick a fight with the church," Underwood said, "but to seek their help in seeking a balance."
A spokesman for the state's 120,000 Methodists was surprised and perplexed by the governor's comments.
"To suggest a connection between a threatening bomb note and a resolution of the church is a stretch of enormous proportions," said Tom Burger, spokesman for the West Virginia convention of the United Methodist Church.
The co-chairman of the state Democratic Party called on Underwood, a Republican, to apologize.
"I don't understand Gov. Underwood's logic," said Steve White, a Charleston lawyer. "It is hard to believe that a politician with his experience would blame the Methodist church for the actions of an individual who is clearly disturbed.
"Gov. Underwood should apologize to West Virginia's religious community for his accusations."
Unlike old-time strip mines, mountaintop removal blasts and shaves off entire hilltops to reach valuable low-sulfur coal reserves. Leftover rock and earth are dumped into nearby valleys and streams.
Environmental groups and coalfield residents have led a more than yearlong campaign against mountaintop removal, receiving national publicity and the attention of federal regulatory agencies.
Much of the heat has focused on the Underwood administration because the governor signed a bill that makes it cheaper and easier for companies to dump mine waste into streams. In recent weeks, Underwood aides have tried to emphasize that mountaintop removal actually geared up under the Caperton administration.
In June, the state's Methodists approved a resolution that called on the state to halt all mountaintop removal mining "until scientific study of its long-term effect on human life and the natural environment has been accomplished."
Underwood promptly attacked the church for its action. "They have other problems they should be concerned about," Underwood said at the time.
The governor said Thursday that, at Methodist conferences he attended, he consistently voted against taking a stand on political issues. Underwood said, for example, that he thought the church should not take sides with workers during labor disputes.
In early July, State Police closed the Capitol Complex for several hours because a letter was found threatening to blow up the building. No bomb was found.
Police have released only part of the letter. They have blamed the incident on a mountaintop removal critic, though a federal police expert said the letter was probably written by a disgruntled state employee who was upset with a variety of issues.
Underwood said several times Thursday that the letter and the Methodist resolution were similar.
The governor said he, not police investigators, discovered the similarity.
"The language of the resolution and the language of the letter are very similar," the governor said.
The portion of the letter released by police said, "Dear Gov. Underwood, How can you sit back and watch our beautiful Mountain State become our Mountainless State!! What ever happened to 'take only memories, leave only footprints? '"
The 10-page Methodist resolution contains no language similar to that portion of the letter.
Rod Blackstone, the governor's press secretary, said the governor was comparing the resolution to another part of the bomb threat that has not been released.
"I don't think he was referring to anything in the excerpt," Blackstone said. "He was talking about something else in the letter."
Blackstone said Public Safety Secretary Otis Cox refused to release the rest of the letter because the bomb threat investigation is ongoing.
Underwood reportedly met with Methodist Bishop S. Clifton Ives the day of the bomb threat to discuss the church's position on mountaintop removal.
On Thursday, Ives released a statement that said, "The bomb threat that shut down state government a few weeks ago is a sad reminder that some persons will resort to the threat of violence in order to express an opinion.
"Historically, the church has expressed opinions about a variety of issues affecting humankind," Ives said. "The church has also consistently rejected violence of any kind or the threat of violence as a way to influence public policy."
Staff writer Bob Schwarz contributed to this report.