WSAZ Investigates | Conflict of Interest
UPDATE 10/3/23 @ 4:45 p.m.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - We’ve been telling you since July about the head of West Virginia’s Department of Transportation awarding contracts with tens of thousands of state and federal dollars to the engineering firm that employs his son.
After WSAZ’s most recent story aired last week, some lawmakers now say they’re concerned, so much so they’re calling for a federal investigation.
Last Tuesday, state Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, posted our most recent WSAZ investigation to social media.
WSAZ’s Sarah Sager reached out to Delegate Pushkin to hear more about his thoughts.
On Friday, Delegate Pushkin sat down with Sager, saying, “I was very concerned after seeing your story, because when we’re talking about, you know, being good stewards of public funds, especially the amount of money that’s spent on repairing our roads and our highways and bridges, there are very strict rules about preventing conflicts of interest. There shouldn’t even be an appearance of a conflict of interest. And I think federal and state law is very clear of what constitutes a conflict of interest. And at very least, there is a strong appearance of a conflict of interest here when you have the current Secretary of the Department of Transportation Jimmy Wriston, who is the final selection on who gets these contracts, and a lot of contracts are going to a firm that employs his son.”
Sager also asked Delegate Pushkin about the discrepancy with the West Virginia Department of Transportation’s documentation.
“It appears that the documents that you obtained are very different from the most recent documents that the Department of Transportation has provided. It’s like they presented two different sets of documents, and they’re trying to present two different sets of facts. That’s confusing, and I think the public deserves to know how their money’s being spent, and who’s being awarded this money, and if there’s a conflict of interest, and that’s why we’re calling for a federal investigation into this. I think the Justice Administration and his Department of Transportation has shown that we can’t count on them to investigate themselves. They’re not going to hold themselves accountable. And this is the type of thing that needs to warrant a federal investigation,” Pushkin said.
The DOT attorney told WSAZ during our interview in August, that the department has begun filing disclosures with the Federal Highways Administration regarding Secretary Wriston and his son’s employment.
The following statement was released Tuesday from co-chairmen of the Joint Legislative Oversight Commission on Department of Transportation Accountability, Sen. Charles Clements, R-Wetzel, and Del. Daniel Linville, R-Cabell:
“The Joint Legislative Oversight Commission on Dept. Of Transportation Accountability is aware of concerns about contracts with the Department and an appearance of possible conflicts of interest. Members of the Commission will continue asking questions about that situation, just as we have in other situations to ensure the Department meets the expectations of West Virginia taxpayers.”
WSAZ has filed document requests at the state and federal level. We received the following Tuesday:
ORIGINAL STORY 9/26/23
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - It’s an investigation we have been working on for nearly a year -- obtaining and going through documents that show West Virginia Department of Transportation Secretary Jimmy Wriston has awarded projects involving hundreds of thousands of state and federal dollars to the consulting firm that employs his son.
That firm is Michael Baker International.
The younger Wriston’s son’s LinkedIn page shows he has worked for the company as a civil engineer for more than 15 years.
We found under the federal code of regulations – in the section pertaining to conflict of interest:
(ii) no employee, officer or agent of the contracting agency shall participate in selection, or in the award or administration of a contract supported by federal-aid funds if a conflict of interest, real or apparent, would be involved.
The code goes on to state -- such a conflict arises when there is a financial or other interest in the consultant selected for award by:
(b) any member of his or her immediate family;
(d) an organization that employs or is about to employ any of the above.
The regulation also states, “A contracting agency shall promptly disclose in writing any potential conflict of interest to FHWA.”
So, WSAZ sent the Federal Highways Administration a Freedom of Information Act Request for any and all written notice(s) submitted by Secretary Jimmy Wriston, under his current and previous roles in the agency, regarding a potential conflict of interest.
We received a response from FHWA stating their search revealed no responsive records.
Before WSAZ’s initial investigation aired, and since then, WSAZ repeatedly asked to speak with Secretary Wriston, but all of WSAZ’s Sarah Sager’s requests have been ignored or denied.
Sager also asked West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice to sit down with her multiple times.
Sager asked on Justice’s virtual press conference on Aug. 9, 2023, “Myself and my assistant news director have reached out to your chief of staff and your communications team multiple times ... but I’ve not received a response from any member of your team. Did you know I’ve been reaching out? And can I have the opportunity to meet with you and show you the documents that I have?”
Governor Justice responded saying, “Make one more run at my chief of staff and if you can’t get satisfied there you are welcome to come talk to me.”
So that’s exactly what we did. We showed the Governor’s Office the documents we obtained, which they took to the Department of Transportation.
But, to answer our questions, we weren’t allowed to speak with Secretary Wriston. Instead, they gave us Nate Tawney, a department lawyer.
Sager: We’ve asked to speak with Secretary Wriston several times. This is a story that’s involving him. We would like to speak with him. We’ve put in that request several times with the Department of Transportation, Highways, as well as the Governor’s Office. Why am I sitting here with you today instead of Secretary Wriston?
Tawney: They asked me to come talk to you. I think a lot of it they thought dealt with the legal side on the the conflict of interest and they wanted to send me to handle that.
Sager: Is he not available? Is he not able to make time for us? Since again, we want to give him the fairness in being able to say this is a story about you. We’d like to get your side.
Tawney: I understand. I was not part of the decision. I came as asked to speak with you today. As far as who and when they want to make themselves available to, I’ll have to defer to them. I’ll pass on your request.
One of the reasons we wanted to speak with Secretary Wriston involves documents we obtained, showing the Glenville Truss bridge project was awarded to Michael Baker International Inc. for consulting in April of 2021.
On those documents, Jimmy Wriston’s name appears not once but twice -- stating as part of the standing selection committee members prepared a short list for selection.
The document goes on to state who the voting members were, and Jimmy Wriston’s name appears at the top of the list.
For our initial investigation, a spokesperson would not make the secretary available to us. But the following day, Sager received a response, calling her reporting into question -- even asking for a retraction, saying “Our engineering division pulled records and verified that Secretary Wriston did not sit on committees for Glenville Truss Bridge as you incorrectly reported.”
The spokesperson went on to name five employees who sat on the selection panel for the Glenville Truss Bridge: David Cramer, Tom Collins, Joshua Anderson, Steven Runyon and Kevin Hall.
But, as for those documents we obtained, only one of the names the spokesperson provided in her email matches the documents.
So we responded, thanking her for sending the names but informing her the department’s signed documentation tells a much different story.
A few days later, WSAZ received three signed affidavits from that same spokesperson. But again, only one of the three names provided this time matched the original names the spokesperson emailed us -- a discrepancy that Sager showed attorney Nate Tawney during our interview.
Sager: Do you see how this is not clearing anything up for me in terms of her calling my reporting into question?
Tawney: Yeah, on the Glenville Truss I thought there were... I don’t know. I thought that it should have been run into the ground.
Sager: I find it to be suspicious that two days after my story airs the document, I have about the Glenville Truss, it’s saying it’s completely wrong even though I have his signature, I have his initials on it, and only one affidavit that’s matching. To me, that’s why it’s not... Can you see why I don’t feel that issue has been run into the ground?
Tawney: I thought that issue had been running around. I didn’t spend a lot of time poring over it. My understanding is he didn’t serve on those selection committees. He has not served on a selection committee that involved Michael Baker.
While the department now contends Wriston did not serve on the selection committee for that project, WSAZ did confirm Wriston played a role in the process that led to Michael Baker’s selection.
Sager: Jimmy Wriston was on the shortlist committee, correct?
Tawney: Honestly, I’m not 100% Sure, sitting here right now.
Sager: Because that would have picked the three that were ultimately picked for the selection committee?
Tawney: Yes, that would be whittled down to the three that then go on.
Sager: Just to reiterate, you’re unclear if he was on the short-list committee?
Tawney: I prefer to check just to make sure.
Sager: I’ll follow up with you if that’s OK.
Sager did follow up via email after the interview with Tawney about Secretary Wriston serving on the Glenville Truss Shot List Committee.
Tawney responded via email saying, “Then-Deputy Secretary Wriston did sit on the short list committee for Glenville Truss. The committee of 5 would together have scored 28 qualified consultants based on professional qualifications, specialized experience/technical competence, capacity, past performance and location and knowledge of locality. The top 3 scores would then be short listed to go through the selection committee process. Mr. Wriston did not serve on the selection committee. "
Sager followed up asking for the score sheets.
Tawney responded saying. “I’m sorry, but the scoring sheet is an internal and deliberative document that we do not make public.”
As for the disclosures the Federal Highways Administration requires to be filed in an apparent conflict of interest, Sager asked who is responsible for the oversight.”
Sager: Is this disclosure not being filed the secretary’s fault or is this an attorney like yourselves fault?
Tawney: I think in this situation, if you are correct that something in writing should have been given to the local office. It’s something that did not, was not considered a conflict. Is definitionally not a conflict under state law. You’ve come in and pointed oh you’re supposed to do this under the federal law. Okay, that issue has been raised.... We will consult with them. We will look into how they construe it if they believe something needs to go as we have now started to do we will continue to do that.
About 30 minutes into WSAZ’s interview with Tawney, there came a knock at the door.
Sager: Do we need to get that?
Tawney got up, saying, “I don’t know.”
Answering the door, Tawney said, “Do you guys need me?”
An unknown woman said, “Yeah, I was told you were needed for another meeting.”
Returning to the interview, Tawney said, “Let’s finish this one, then I have to go.”
WSAZ Assistant News Director Kristen Bentley stood in on the interview and wanted to ask a few more questions before Tawney left.
Bentley: There’s a lot of documents there.
Sager: Yes, more.
Bentley: There’s a lot, a lot, a lot of documents. My question always goes back to ...
Sager: When there’s smoke is there fire?
Bentley: Well, should his name have been on any of these documents? The supplemental agreements are just his signature no one else’s.
Tawney: Right, so the selection is made by a selection committee. He as the commissioner of highways secretary is the one with the authority to sign the contract.
Bentley: Which means if he doesn’t ...
Tawney: Let me finish, please. Secretary Wriston does take a very hands-on approach. Byrd White for example delegated to Secretary Wriston on the more technical things the ability to sign. Secretary Wriston does keep a hands-on approach. He wants to see what’s coming through. He wants to know what’s going on. That’s his way of helping understand and keeping his finger on the pulse of this agency.
Bentley: But if he doesn’t sign the contracts they don’t get awarded. Right?
Bentley: So then he is involved in all these Michael Baker contracts?
Tawney: He does finally execute them, yes.
Bentley: Is that appropriate would be my question?
Tawney: Yes, and we will continue to consult with FHWA if they want something else to happen we will cross that bridge.
After WSAZ’s interview with Tawney, Sager asked WVU College of Law Professor Patrick McGinley his thoughts about the issue.
McGinley: Avoid even the appearance of impropriety, and I think that’s the problem.
Sager: Going forward, do you think he should be involved in these Michael Baker contracts?
McGinley: No, whether the law requires him to step away or not. When the people of West Virginia see that the secretary of this department is involved in deciding what consultants to hire and pay millions of dollars to, he doesn’t have to be involved when one of the firms under consideration employs his son.
After WSAZ’s initial investigation aired, Tawney told the investigative team the department is now filing disclosures with FHWA regarding Secretary Wriston and his son’s employment.
WSAZ has filed federal and state document requests to obtain those disclosures, but we still haven’t received them. Once WSAZ has those disclosures, we will be working to learn what will change for the West Virginia Department of Transportation regarding Secretary Wriston’s involvement in contracts awards and renewals with Michael Baker International, Inc.
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