For nearly a year, the Tomblin administration didn't tell West Virginians about a damning report, for which taxpayers had paid $118,000.
The report contends that Gov. Tomblin's aides and previous Manchin officials squandered millions of federal stimulus dollars for a broadband expansion that solely benefits Frontier Communications, giving the corporation an "unintended monopoly" on high-speed Internet service. It says fragmented fiber optic lines are an "unusable network except for Frontier" and "no practical use for the public or competition."
After Gazette reporter Eric Eyre unearthed the ugly report, Frontier angrily denounced it, calling it "worthless, inaccurate and stale comments that merely repeat previously repudiated allegations."
We don't know if it should be dubbed worthless, since taxpayers shelled out $118,000 for it.
Instead, a major investigation by federal agencies or the Legislature should be conducted, so West Virginians can learn trustworthy facts about this controversy.
The state's mammoth broadband project, funded by $126 million of U.S. stimulus money, was designed to provide rapid Internet access for remoter parts of West Virginia. Suspicion rose when the Gazette revealed that giant $22,000 routers had been installed in tiny offices that could have been served by $100 units. A legislative audit confirmed the overspending.
More than a year ago, the Tomblin administration hired Virginia consultants, ICF International, to study the West Virginia project. The ICF report was delivered late last April. It bluntly indicted the Mountain State operation.
It says the new broadband cables are supposed to be an "open-access network" available to all businesses and individuals, but they're actually a "private" network unusable by competitors. It adds that Frontier installed "gold-plated" service by using up to six times more strands of fiber than needed. Also, it says, few records were kept.
The report implies that West Virginia may be in "the position of improperly using public funds" and suggests that Frontier was "not in compliance with federal regulations."
After receiving this jolting study last spring, Gov. Tomblin and Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette hid it from West Virginians. Frontier privately gave the state a different audit saying its work was proper.
The Gazette filed a Freedom of Information request for the ICF report, but Burdette refused on grounds that it's an "internal memorandum" -- and he added that it "could be embarrassing to some people." However, reporter Eyre obtained a covert copy of it.
This hard-hitting report raises grim questions about West Virginia's $126 million project. The public needs a thorough investigation to get reliable answers.