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Cornelius to sue over removal from Wood County Republican Executive Committee

CHARLESTON — After being denied his appeal of his removal as a chairman and member of the Wood County Executive Committee, Rob Cornelius announced Monday his intent to sue the state’s chief elections officer.

In a statement Monday, Cornelius, still styling himself as chairman of the county executive committee, said he was notifying the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office his intent to file suit.

“We will attempt to compel them…by denying this arbitrary attempt by the West Virginia Republican Party to take control of the Wood County Republican Party and choose new Committee members in violation of both West Virginia Code and the civil rights of Republican voters countywide,” Cornelius said.

State code requires all who wish to file suit against the state give a 30-day notice. Cornelius wants the courts to require the Secretary of State’s Office to reject the list of new committee members submitted by West Virginia Republican Executive Committee Chairwoman Melody Potter.

“The Secretary of State’s office has been formally notified by Mr. Cornelius of his intent to sue. When or if a lawsuit is actually filed, it will most likely be turned over to the Attorney General’s office who represents the Secretary of State in matters such as this,” said Michael L. Queen, deputy chief of staff and director of communications.

In the meantime, Roger Conley, who was appointed chairman of the Wood County Republican Party and was appointed to the committee by Potter, Monday said all regular meetings of the executive committee will be held despite Cornelius on Monday morning telling members the meetings have been canceled.

The cancellation by Cornelius “will not stand,” said Conley, pointing out that Cornelius is no longer chairman or a member of the committee.

“He has zero authority to cancel our meetings,” Conley said.

Today’s meeting, set for 7:30 p.m. at the Judge Black Annex, is set by the bylaws for every other month in off-election years, Conley said.

According to state code, political party executive committees are placed on primary election ballots every four years for the county, state, legislative, and congressional districts. Typical duties of an executive committee include recruiting poll workers and submitting names to fill vacant elected offices. The next election for committee members is May 12, 2020.

In a June 18 letter, Potter told county committee members that she removed Cornelius as county chairman and as an elected committee member representing the A5 district. Potter said her reasons included various acts of party disunity and mismanagement caused by Cornelius. She also accused Cornelius of conducting a smear campaign against her and harassment through social media.

In June, the Secretary of State’s Office agreed to publish online an updated roster of members of the Wood County Republican Executive Committee which excluded Cornelius, who was in his second term as county chairman. Cornelius said the secretary of state should not have accepted a committee roster from anyone but him. He accused Potter of putting party bylaws above state law.

“A party’s bylaws do not supersede West Virginia Code or federal law or this great Constitution anywhere, other than in Melody Potter’s alternate reality,” Cornelius said. “The authority to govern the activities of the Wood County Republican Party rests with Americans in Wood County.”

Cornelius filed an appeal June 28 of Potter’s decision to remove him from the executive committee. In a letter dated June 10, Potter told Cornelius that his appeal had been denied, citing state party bylaws that require at least 50 percent of county committee members to sign a letter appealing any decision made on behalf of the county committee by the state executive committee.

“Your removal is and was what is best for the West Virginia Republican Party and the Wood County Republican Party,” Potter wrote. “Your removal was necessary and done in the best interest of the Republican Party.”

Cornelius accused Potter of taking orders from Gov. Jim Justice, who is seeking a second term and running in the May 2020 Republican primary. Justice won election in 2016 as a Democrat but switched parties at the behest of President Donald Trump nearly two years ago.

Potter has come under fire from Cornelius for sending an invite in January to Justice’s re-election announcement at the Justice-owned Greenbrier Resort using the state party’s email system, as well as accepting donations to the party from Justice. A petition being sent around calls for the state Republican Party — scheduled in August at the Greenbrier — to be relocated.

“Melody Potter has doubled down on her failure to lead the West Virginia Republican Party by breaking state law, selectively enforcing party bylaws, and choosing to destroy the trust and capital built by this Party for decades,” Cornelius said. “Make no mistake: This is not about what’s best for the Republican Party or our conservative candidates across 55 counties. It’s solely about what’s best for her benefactor Jim Justice.”

State code lays out how executive committees handle filling vacancies, but it doesn’t address removal of committee members. Code does require committee chairs to submit updated lists of committee members to the Secretary of State’s Office and empowers the chairs to appoint new committee members if the committee hasn’t already done so within 60 days of a vacancy.

To remove Cornelius and appoint new committee members, Potter cited the bylaws of the state party, which give state party chairs authority to fill vacancies on county, senatorial, judicial, circuit, and congressional Republican executive committees “or taking what other action may be provident.”

“As it stands, if Melody Potter is permitted to continue to use a single section of the West Virginia Republican Party’s bylaws as her crutch to support her decisions and completely disregard state law, ANY member of ANY Committee in ANY county can be removed and replaced at her (or Jim Justice’s) discretion,” Cornelius said. “Allowing this practice to continue provides her with limitless power to choose replacements for unexpired terms in any Legislative office and any vacancy on any Committee.”

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com.

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