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Metronews This Morning 5-27-20

COVID 19 has now been found in 76 inmates and staff at the Huttonsville prison, targeted testing has also pushed up the state’s positive rate. Early voting gets started today in West Virginia, Governor Jim Justice has no desire for a debate ahead of election day. State Parks are back open and West Virginians are enjoying their return. Cicadas are coming out in part of West Virginia and there will be a tennis “residency” at the Greenbrier this summer. These stories and more in today’s Metronews This Morning.

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Fairmont Senior’s Gage Michael sets sights back to Wheeling after semifinal loss

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — In his first season leading the powerful Polar Bear offense at Fairmont Senior, Gage Michael transitioned seamlessly into the starting spot. The junior quarterback accounted for 49 total touchdowns and 3,943 yards of total offense.

“I had been behind Connor Neal for the past two years. He was the Kennedy Award winner and House Award winner his senior season,” Michael said. “I have been very fortunate to play behind him. With the coaching staff we have, they were able to get me prepared. And I felt very comfortable the first game.”

Everything was going well for Michael until the regular season finale against East Fairmont. A right ankle injury hampered him for the rest of football season and ultimately cost him half of his basketball season as well.

“I could never really get back to how I wanted to. It was just a bad sprain and I fractured a little bone in it. It wasn’t a bad break or anything but it definitely affected my running ability and the whole team’s confidence knowing that I wasn’t going to be a hundred percent.”

For the third consecutive season, the Polar Bears wound up facing Bluefield. They split state championships in the previous two years. In the semifinals, the Beavers prevailed 40-24, ending the Polar Bears’ 26-game win streak.

“Losing, it sucks but it has to happen sometimes. I think that is probably one of my greatest motivators. I hate losing. I am a competitor. So I cannot wait to get back on the field and compete.”

As the Polar Bears pivot to 2020, several of Michael’s key protectors on the line have moved on, notably WVU recruit Zach Frazier. Leading receiver Cam Longwell has also moved on as well.

“Kayson Nealy will be big-time for us. He started last year and was one of my top two targets. He was only a sophomore last year and he played very well. So I am excited to get him back.”

Michael’s impressive junior season has caught the attention of a pair of Division I FCS programs. Robert Morris and Bryant have made scholarship offers.

“I have been on a bunch of Zoom calls with teams. It has been cool to get to know everybody and know the teams and the coaching staffs and for them to get to know me as well.

“I don’t really have a timetable but I would like to make a decision as fast as possible.”

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Justice dodges debate

Somewhere in The Book of Campaigning it is written, “If you are ahead in the polls then avoid debates.  If you’re behind, push for them.”

That makes perfect sense from a strategy standpoint.  A candidate who is ahead worries about losing ground, making a mistake, or putting a trailing opponent on equal footing.  The candidate who is behind in the polls wants a chance to even up the odds.

So, given that, it is no surprise that Governor Jim Justice is refusing to debate his Republican opponents. When pressed on the question during Tuesday’s briefing, Justice said this:

“All of the polling that we have done would show that my closest opponent is probably in excess of forty percent (forty points?) away from me at this point in time, and the only thing that can happen from a debate is damage the Republican Party, damage us in a situation where we’re going to be running in the General Election to win and keep the majority in the Republican Party.”

It is possible that Justice would have a terrible debate performance, but still win the Primary and thus be a damaged candidate going into the General Election.  But that is not the only outcome of a debate.

Another outcome would be that Republican and Independent voters would have an opportunity to see Justice, Woody Thrasher and Mike Folk together on a debate stage and judge for themselves who is the better candidate.

Justice may be the incumbent Governor, but he is not the incumbent Republican Party nominee. He was elected in 2016 as a Democrat and later switched parties.  He may be the front runner, but he has yet to be chosen by the party.

Justice also said his commitment to all things Covid-19 precludes him from debating.  “With all the stuff that I’m doing every day, why in the world would I be taking time from what I’m trying to take care of here, considering all those facts, and run out and do something political.”

The answer is that running for office is a political process. Justice always assumes the worst about politics, but it remains the system by which we choose leaders who obtain and exercise power.

True, Justice has pivoted from campaigning to leading the state through the pandemic and making tough decisions. He has made himself available to the press nearly every day.  However, almost all questions have been about the pandemic.

There is more happening in West Virginia than the virus. There are legitimate issues such as public education, the opioid epidemic, the economy, roads and infrastructure, population stagnation and more.

Legitimate candidates have challenged Justice’s leadership.  Like it or not, he has a responsibility to defend himself and justify why Republicans should, for the first time, nominate him.  A debate would help voters make up their minds.

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Jarrod West withdraws from NBA Draft, returns to Marshall for senior season

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — With the deadline approaching for underclassmen to cement their status in the NBA Draft process, Clarksburg native Jarrod West has withdrawn his name from draft consideration. He will return to Marshall for his senior season this winter.

On April 10, West announced he would explore his NBA options with the possibility of returning to school. The traditional pre-draft window was altered without the annual draft combine or in-person workouts at team facilities.

West’s return allows the Herd to bring back their team almost completely intact. Marshall went 17-15, advancing to the Conference USA quarterfinals before the postseason was halted by the pandemic.

West starred for his father, a former WVU standout, at Notre Dame High School. He led the Fighting Irish to the 2017 Class A state championship while winning the Evans Award as the state’s top player.

Tyson Murray, WVMetroNews.com

Jarrod West named the top boys basketball player in the state by the West Virginia Sports Writers Association in 2017.

West was a third team all-Conference USA selection as a junior, averaging 14.2 points, 4.1 assists and 4 rebounds per game. He led the league in steals and minutes played.

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12,500 court hearings held via video amid pandemic

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Courts across West Virginia have held around 12,500 video hearings combined since March 23 as courtrooms have been closed amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The hearings held using Skype include hearings by circuit judges and magistrates to regional jail video systems utilized for reducing transporting prisoners.

Local courts are allowed to place personalized restrictions to reduce hearings, although courts have begun the gradual return to normal operations.

Lawyers were also admitted to the bar on May 20 through virtual ceremonies, a first in West Virginia.

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Doctor registrations for cannabis program begins Thursday

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The state Office of Medical Cannabis will begin accepting physician registrations on Thursday.

Doctors must complete a registration application and complete a four-hour education course online.

“Physician registration and training are essential steps to make medical cannabis available to West Virginians with serious medical conditions,” office director Jason Frame said Tuesday.

“The Office of Medical Cannabis continues to work during the COVID-19 pandemic with the goal of providing eligible state residents with the ability to procure quality-tested medical cannabis as soon as possible. We have been able to maintain previously established timelines by utilizing alternative work platforms in keeping with the Governor’s social distancing directive.”

Patients will not be able to immediately obtain cannabis products.

The application and course can be accessed at https://www.medcanwv.org.

The registration period will be indefinitely open.

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Wriston says DOH committed to ‘all’ maintenance, bond highway projects

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The state Division of Highways is anticipating a very busy summer construction season after being slowed by a wetter than normal spring.

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Jimmy Wriston

State Deputy Highways Commissioner Jimmy Wriston said the state is currently involved in more than $3.4 billion in active construction projects at various stages.

“Some of those projects are design-build, so the engineering phase is being done by the contractor and they’re ordering materials. Some are in the process of finalizing their permit applications and some are actually being worked on,” Wriston recently told MetroNews.

State voters approved a road bond issue, named the Roads to Prosperity program by Gov. Jim Justice, in an October 2017 vote. It gave the state the authority to spend up to $1.6 billion.

The first bond series went to market in 2018 and was valued at $800 million. It ended up at $913 million because of a bond premium while the second bond sale, which went to market last December, netted $746.5 million following a $146.5 million bond premium.

Wriston said the state has been using some of the bond money voters approved for long-term maintenance projects following a refocus on maintenance that began in March of 2019.

“I would say relatively not a lot of bond money has been used on maintenance projects but we have have been using bond money on slips, slides and bridges,” Wriston said.

Bond money can used on projects that have a life of about a dozen years, the Justice administration has previously said.

Kokosing Construction

U.S. Route 35 in Putnam and Mason counties will soon have a 14.5 mile replacement section.

So the DOH and its boss, the Department of Transportation, have taken the large highway projects that many talked about leading up to the bond vote, and chosen to finance them with a variety of sources.

“We did some things on our end,” Wriston said. “We moved some of the projects into our federal aid program. We put some state dollars into some of those. We managed the financing of the projects from all of our revenue sources, from all of our buckets.”

Wriston said the whole program works together.

“We use our funding buckets in conjunction with the bond program from time to time. But one taking away from another is not going to happen. We’re committed to all of the projects,” Wriston said.

State Transportation Secretary Byrd White told a legislative interim committee last October there had been misconceptions about the “Roads to Prosperity” projects. He said some of the projects originally discussed were candidate projects.

The state has the authority to go back to Wall Street to sell an additional $200 million in bonds. There’s also Parkway Authority bond money and Garvee money on the table but Wriston doesn’t think that will happen any time soon.

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I-79 Exit 99 in Lewis County is the site of an active construction project.

“It’s probably not a good time to be going to the bond market,” Wriston said.

Some of the original general obligation bond projects under contract include:

Morgantown Mileground widening ($8.7 m-64 billion); I-79 Weston exit reconfiguration ($24.1 million); Coalfields Expressway-Mullens to Slab Fork-concrete paving ($33.2 million); Berkeley County Interstate 81 widening-Tabler Station to Apple Harvest Drive ($49.5 million); U.S. Route 35 paving-Putnam and Mason counties ($50.9 million); Turnpike widening project-Beckley ($105.6 million); Corridor H extension-U.S. Route 219 to state Route 72 ($175.7 million).

Updates on some of the larger projects provided by Wriston to MetroNews:

–I-79 Weston exit reconfiguration— progressing and should be finished on schedule

–U.S. Route 35— paving of the 14.5 mile final four-lane section is underway. A second project calls for a new intersection near Frazier’s Bottom. Wriston said the projects may not be completed until Spring 2021.

–I-64 widening in Cabell County at Merritts Creek–permit applications being finalized. Wriston said work should begin soon.

–I-64 bridge project at Nitro–Wriston said it’s under contract with preparation and design worker underway. He said final permits should be in place soon.

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74th coronavirus-related death reported; state releases testing site information

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A 74th West Virginian has died in connection to the coronavirus pandemic.

The state Department of Health and Human Resources identified the person as a 75-year-old man from Preston County in its Tuesday evening report.

According to the department, 1,854 tests have come back positive since recording tests began. Nearly 88,000 tests have been noted by state officials. The daily rate of positive cases is 7.11% compared to a cumulate 2.11% rate.

The number of cases per county as of Tuesday evening (cases confirmed/probable cases):

Barbour (9/0), Berkeley (280/10), Boone (9/0), Braxton (2/0), Brooke (3/0), Cabell (57/2), Calhoun (2/0), Clay (2/0), Fayette (46/0), Gilmer (10/0), Grant (10/1), Greenbrier (9/0), Hampshire (21/0), Hancock (16/2), Hardy (38/0), Harrison (39/1), Jackson (135/0), Jefferson (158/3), Kanawha (213/2), Lewis (5/0), Lincoln (5/0), Logan (16/0), Marion (50/0), Marshall (28/0), Mason (15/0), McDowell (6/0), Mercer (13/0), Mineral (38/2), Mingo (4/1), Monongalia (121/7), Monroe (6/1), Morgan (17/1), Nicholas (10/0), Ohio (40/0), Pendleton (8/1), Pleasants (4/1), Pocahontas (23/1), Preston (17/5), Putnam (33/0), Raleigh (15/1), Randolph (82/0), Ritchie (1/0), Roane (8/0), Summers (1/0), Taylor (8/0), Tucker (4/0), Tyler (3/0), Upshur (6/1), Wayne (97/0), Wetzel (8/0), Wirt (4/0), Wood (50/3) and Wyoming (3/0).

The department also announced Tuesday additional testing opportunities for Friday and Saturday. The West Virginia National Guard, Department of Health and Human Resources and the Herbert Henderson Office of Minority Affairs held testing sites last week as part of the state’s effort to encourage testing in minority and vulnerable communities:

— Berkeley County: Musselman High School, 126 Excellence Way, Inwood, WV 25428
— Jefferson County: Hollywood Casino, 750 Hollywood Drive, Charles Town, WV 25414
— Kanawha County: Shawnee Sports Complex, One Salango Way, Dunbar, WV 25064
— Mineral County: American Legion Piedmont, 10 Green Street, Piedmont, WV 26750 (Friday); School Complex, 1123 Harley O. Staggers Senior Drive, Keyser, WV 26726 (Saturday)
— Morgan County: Warm Springs Middle School, 271 Warm Springs Way, Berkeley Springs, WV 25411

Identification is required, and minors must be accompanied by a legal guardian.

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Mail carrier accused of changing five ballot requests from Democrat to Republican

A postal carrier in Pendleton County is accused of committing attempted election fraud by taking requests for Democratic absentee ballots and re-marking them as requests for Republican ballots.

Mail carrier Thomas Cooper, 47, of Dry Fork was charged with “attempt to defraud the residents of West Virginia of a fair election.”

The charge was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia.

The investigator was Bennie Cogar of the West Virginia Attorney General’s Office and on behalf of the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office. Cogar swore an affidavit, which was included with the filing.

“Had Cooper’s conduct not been detected, it would have caused the Clerk to give Republican ballots to 5 Democrat voters — skewing the primary election by 5 votes and thereby defrauding all West Virginians of a fair election,” Cogar stated in the affidavit.

West Virginia expanded eligibility for absentee balloting this year as a precaution for the spread of coronavirus. Residents receive an absentee ballot request and then send it to their local clerk to receive an absentee ballot.

Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, in a statement distributed by his office, said it’s important to protect the integrity of the ballot box.

“Manipulating one’s absentee ballot or application is not a laughing matter – it’s a federal offense,” Morrisey stated.

“It is more important now than ever for voters to watch for unexplained or suspicious marks and/or any other irregularity with their ballot. If something looks suspicious, let us know right away.”

The investigation kicked off when workers in the Pendleton County Clerk’s office received eight absentee ballot requests forms that appeared to have been altered with a black pen.

Five had their requests for Democratic forms changed to Republican. In three more, there was no party switch but there were additional markings in black ink to underscore original requests made in blue ink by the voters for Republican ballots.

The clerk knew some of the voters with altered ballots were not Republican, Cogar stated in the affidavit, so she called them.

One, described only by the initials M.R., said four of his family members had requested Democratic ballots by underlining the word “Democrat” with blue ink.

His daughter is the postmaster in Onego, and he suggested a carrier might have tampered with the requests.

Additional requests from residents of Franklin, also in Pendleton County, had a similar experience, with original blue markings for “Democrat” changed with black ink to “Republican.”

Cogar and U.S. Postal Inspector Todd Phillips met April 27 with Cooper, who had been identified with a route matching the communities with the altered ballots.

The affidavit by Cogar indicates Cooper said “yes” to changing the ballots that had been mailed from the Onega post office.

Asked about altered ballots from other communities, Cogar wrote that Cooper responded, “I’m not saying no, [but] if it was on my route, I would take the blame.”

The investigator asked, “You were just being silly?”

Cooper, according to the affidavit, responded , “Yeah I [did it] as a joke… [I] don’t even know them.”



Cooper Affidavit (Text)

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Virus precautions in place at early voting sites across West Virginia

WHEELING, W.Va. — Early voting begins Wednesday in West Virginia amid the COVID-19 pandemic and many precincts and voting stations around the state are taking precautions.

When entering the City-County building in Wheeling, Ohio County voters will be asked to wear a mask and put on a glove on the dominant hand before entering the early voting room on the first floor.

Toni Chieffalo, the Election Coordinator for Ohio County, told MetroNews the gloves, both latex and non-latex, will help voters avoid high touch point areas and protect the poll workers. Gloves will be disposed of as the voters leave the room.

“We are asking they put on one glove on the hand they sign with, she said. “That way they can hold their own ID and then go in up to the poll clerk at the table and show the ID. The poll clerk can bring them up.

“Then when they ask them to sign the electronic poll books, they’ll have their glove on and they will use the stylist that is attached to it. This way they are not touching any screen.”

Chieffalo said only four voters will be allowed in the polling room at one time. Other voters will be asked to stand at a six-feet distance apart in the hallway.

All workers in Ohio County will have a mask on and masks are required to enter the City-County building, but Chieffalo said the mask rule will be tough to enforce. She said the poll workers will clean any machine a voter is not wearing a mask or glove.

“Coming in the building you have to have a mask so I am hoping that everybody does,” she said. “We are not going to stop somebody from voting if they don’t. We went through the early voting class and I told the workers ‘Get them through, get them in and out as fast as you can.’ There’s only so much you can do.”

In Harrison County, any voter who does not wear a mask and undergo a temperature check will not be able to vote. The Harrison County Commission unanimously approved those two mandates for primary voting at a meeting on Tuesday, WV News reported.

Voters who have a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher will still be allowed to participate. According to WV News, the temperature check is intended to allow poll workers to take extra precautions and sanitization measures after a voter is finished.

The commission said that masks will be provided to voters who do not bring their own and that anyone who refuses the procedures will be denied access to the voting facility.

Voters who would prefer not to go through the procedures in any county may still request an absentee ballot. A county clerk’s office must receive the absentee ballot application by June 3. The absentee ballot must be postmarked by the primary election date of June 9 to count.

As of Tuesday, the Secretary of State Mac Warner said there have been 249,263 or 20.3 percent of registered voters request an absentee ballot. Warner reported that 135,726 of those ballots, 11.1% of registered voters, have been cast.

In Ohio County, Chieffalo said around 7,000 absentee ballots were sent out and her office has received more than 4,000 back as fears of the coronavirus remain.

She believes the numbers of absentee ballots will lessen the crowds seen during early voting in Ohio County.

“Since we did the absentees, I don’t think the crowds are going to be as large for early voting, I really don’t. Even Election Day,” she said.

Monongalia County Clerk Carye Blaney told MetroNews affiliate WAJR that her staff has processed more than 13,000 absentee ballot requests. She said that the volume of ballots along changing protocols due to the pandemic has been a challenge for her office.

“In a typical presidential election we would process about 1,000 to 1,200 absentee ballots. We’re about 13-times what we would normally process in a presidential election,” she said.

In-person early voting will begin tomorrow and end June 6.

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