WSAZ Investigates | Access Denied
HUNTINGTON/CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - When a high-ranking state official was fired, we filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to find out why.
We were denied – twice. It raises the question: What is the government hiding?
In West Virginia, the Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) is the state’s largest agency. It’s so large that during the legislative session, both the House and Senate voted to split the DHHR into two different agencies. While Gov. Jim Justice ultimately vetoed that split, he’s also publicly acknowledged the department has problems.
“All of us know that there are challenges and issues within DHHR,” Justice said.
But how deep do those issues run internally? Deep enough for the agency’s number two, now former Deputy Secretary Jeremiah Samples to be fired. So on April 8 when we confirmed Samples was no longer with the agency, we immediately filed a FOIA to find out what happened.
In our request, we asked in part for “all communications and documentation regarding the termination of Jeremiah Samples as DHHR deputy secretary,” as well as all email communication between Samples and Secretary Bill Crouch between Dec. 1, 2021, and April 7.
That following Monday (April 11), Samples put out a statement about his departure. It reads in part, “DHHR has struggled to make and even lost progress in many critical areas.”
He goes on to name several of those areas, from child welfare to protection of the vulnerable, management of state health facilities, EMS and provider capacity and says “many more DHHR responsibilities have simply not met anyone’s expectation, especially my own.”
Samples also states that he and Secretary Crouch have not shared the same views on what the problems are, how to handle them or the urgency of achieving results, which Crouch addressed publicly when asked about Samples firing.
“We all have to pull the rope in the same direction, Crouch said. “This is a large agency, so we have to have everyone on board with what we’re doing.”
That’s despite Samples issuing a statement and Secretary Crouch’s public comments, our FOIA request was denied not once but twice – with the state claiming, in part, that the documents are protected under an exemption that states public disclosure would “constitute an unreasonable invasion of privacy.”
So, we went to Patrick McGinley, a law professor at WVU, who’s an expert in public access to information. WSAZ’s Sarah Sager asked him some questions.
Sager: “if there is a difference of opinion between two top officials so massive that it ends with one of them fired, shouldn’t the public have access to that information?”
McGinley: “Absolutely. In fact, West Virginia law requires transparency of public bodies, and this is one of those situations where the public has a right to know.”
We sent McGinley a copy of our request and the state’s responses -- so we could get his thoughts on our questions and the state’s answers.
McGinley: “I’ve taken a look at your Freedom of Information Act request, and it’s clear to me that there definitely should be information that should be disclosed.”
Sager: “In your opinion why do you think our FOIA was denied?”
McGinley: “In my opinion, there is something the department wants to hide. The issues are extraordinarily important. They’re life-and-death issues with regard to those people whose lives are affected by DHHR and clearly according to Mr. Samples’ statement when he left his job, he had very serious concerns about the agency and how it was conducting its business and that’s something the public has a right to know, and the government should be forthcoming and they’re not.”
McGinley says WSAZ is taking the right course of action by filing suit to try to get the documents we were denied but also says this is a step we never should have had to take.
“It’s inexplicable, he said. “It’s the responsibility of government agencies to be transparent and when they’re not and they’re hiding behind exemptions that don’t apply to them that’s really problematic, and it undermines the rule of law and citizens’ respect for government.”
So, the big questions that remain for DHHR Secretary Crouch: What are you hiding? And why do you want to keep these emails and documents from the public?
We have reached out to the DHHR for comment. Now that we know they have received the lawsuit, they haven’t responded yet. As for what happens next, the state now has about 30 days to respond.
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