Gaunch named W.Va. Commerce Secretary

Gov. Jim Justice introduces state Sen. Ed Gaunch, R-Kanawha, as the new secretary of the Department of Commerce. (Photo by Steven Allen Adams)

CHARLESTON — After nearly six months without a permanent cabinet secretary, the state agency at the forefront of recruiting businesses to West Virginia has a new leader.

Gov. Jim Justice announced that state Sen. Ed Gaunch, R-Kanawha, will be the new secretary of the Department of Commerce. Justice made the announcement Tuesday afternoon at a press conference at the Capitol in Charleston.

“This is a great big job, and it needs a great man with a lot of vision and a lot of gumption and an absolute superstar,” Justice said. “I really believe you have a man with a lot of business experience, a man with a lot of vision, and a man who is really respected around these parts. We’re really proud to have him.”

Gaunch was elected to the West Virginia Senate in 2014 and part of the wave that took both legislative chambers. He lost a close re-election bid to Charleston attorney Richard Lindsay. Gaunch lost with 49.75 percent of votes cast – or just 165 votes – compared to Lindsay with 50.25 percent.

“We’ve looked for this for a long time, and thank goodness Ed lost the election,” Justice jokingly said. “By doing that we were able to entice and now get a superstar.”

A retired president and CEO for the Carson Insurance Agency, Gaunch is chairman for the Senate Committee Government Organization and vice-chairman of the Senate Pensions Committee.

“I’m excited, flattered, and humbled,” Gaunch said. “I thought a few weeks ago I was going to go back to being citizen Gaunch, but it looks like the governor has asked me to do this. I’m excited about it. It’s in my wheelhouse. I’ve spent 40 years in business. I have a degree in economics. I think I can do this job.”

He also is chairman of the Joint Legislative Committee on Flooding, which was tasked with investigating the Commerce Department’s handling of the RISE West Virginia flood relief program.

The office hasn’t had a permanent cabinet secretary since former secretary Woody Thrasher resigned June 14. Clayton Burch, the associate superintendent of schools for the Department of Education, has served as acting commerce secretary since then. Justice said he’s had difficulty trying to recruit a new commerce secretary.

“To find who we wanted in the private sector today, just to tell it like it is, there’s two really big deterrents,” Justice said. “One is the wage you’re able to pay. Two, more so than that, is that there are a lot of people who throw rocks at these people all the time. If you’ve got something good going on in private business today, you may not want someone looking over your shoulder every minute about every single thing you do. So, finding that person is not easy.”

Justice was referring to the RISE program administered by the Commerce Department. The program, funded with a $149 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, was supposed to help renovate and reconstruct homes lost during the floods of June 2016. Instead, commerce officials entered into several contracts with Horne LLP without going through state purchasing procedures, according to audits.

The RISE program was paused in February while the governor’s office reviewed the Horne contracts. In June, West Virginia National Guard Adj. Gen. James Hoyer was placed in charge of RISE, with Thrasher resigning at the end of that month.

Commerce also lost Kris Hopkins, the executive director of the Development Office, and Josh Jarrell, deputy secretary of the Department of Commerce and the agency’s chief legal counsel, in May. Those departures were followed in June with the departures of Mary Jo Thompson, director of community development in the Department of Commerce, and Russell Tarry, director of the West Virginia Office of Economic Opportunity.

Gaunch, who was critical of commerce’s handling of the RISE program when chairing the flood committee, said he still has questions about the program, but he is confident the issues found under Thrasher have been fixed.

“I don’t know what all happened there,” Gaunch said. “I’m sure there are things behind-the-scenes that I didn’t know at the time. The ball was dropped on that, but we’re past that now. We’re moving in the right direction. That’s one of the things I’ll check on when I get there.”

Since then, Justice has appointed Michael Graney, the former president of the One Stop gas station chain, as the executive director of the West Virginia Development Office and will report to Gaunch. Besides the development office, the Department of Commerce oversees seven other divisions: The Division of Forestry, the Division of Labor, the Office of Mine Health, Safety and Training, the Division of Natural Resources, and Division of Tourism, and WorkForce West Virginia, and the Geological and Economic Survey.

“I’m sure the staff is well qualified and can walk me through where we are,” Gaunch said. “My main number one goal is to make sure all of those agencies are rowing in the same direction.”

Justice also announced that Delegate Jill Upson, R-Jefferson, will be the new executive director of the Herbert Henderson Office of Minority Affairs. The previous director, William White, was fired in October after a complaint was filed against him alleging sexual harassment by a female employee, according to the Associated Press.

Upson was defeated by Democrat Sammi Brown Nov. 6, losing 47.32 percent to 52.68 percent. She drew controversy during the election after the West Virginia NAACP called for her resignation due to a national political action committee she chaired aired an ad talking about lynching. The state Democratic Party came out against both appointments in a statement.

“These appointments by Gov. Justice are nothing more than politically motivated consolation prizes that go against what’s best for West Virginia,” said state Democratic Party chairwoman Belinda Biafore. “West Virginians spoke loud and clear when Upson and Gaunch lost their elections and now West Virginians are footing the bill for their salaries. It’s just wrong. The West Virginia NAACP called for Jill Upson’s resignation and now she’s the executive director of the Herbert Henderson Office of Minority Affairs. It proves how out of touch Gov. Justice is and his lack of respect for the people of West Virginia.”

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