Disaster Aid: Investigation warranted on how funds were spent
When the federal government dumps tens of millions of dollars into a state to help disaster victims, crooked politicians smell opportunity. Who’s to notice if some of the money gets siphoned away?
After more than a year of questions concerning how more than $200 million in federal flood relief funds were spent, U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart is investigating. Stuart, whose jurisdiction includes southern West Virginia counties hit by deadly flooding in 2016, made the announcement last week.
There already had been allegations of wrongdoing. Four current and former officials in the town of Richwood have been charged with embezzling flood relief money. One outrageous accusation is that the town received $500,000 to repair a water system intake damaged by flooding — but spent just $400 on a temporary repair and used the rest for officials’ salaries and municipal debt.
Local officials sometimes plead ignorance regarding the rules for spending federal disaster relief funds. That excuse will not — or should not — work at the state level.
Still unanswered are questions about how the RISE West Virginia program was handled. With nearly $150 million in federal funds, it was supposed to help victims of the 2016 floods. Delays in doling out the funds were reported.
Then, Gov. Jim Justice removed RISE from the state Commerce Department and had the National Guard begin handling it. At the time, state officials said the commerce agency had entered into $18 million in illegal consulting contracts.
Clearly, that is one matter Stuart and his investigators should probe.
Anyone guilty of diverting disaster relief money from its intended purpose ought to be punished harshly. Here’s hoping Stuart’s investigation tells West Virginians just how much of that occurred after the 2016 flooding.