Number of questions on the RISE

Your home has been destroyed in a flash flood. Your family needs help, desperately. Because enough people were affected by the disaster, federal aid is available.

You apply for some money. You wait, wait some more, make a few phone calls and are told to be patient.

Then you find out that nearly a year ago, the federal government approved $104 million to help flood victims, later increasing that to $149 million. You haven’t received a dime.

Neither have most victims of June 2016 flooding in southeast and central West Virginia. Of the total of more than $149 million in federal aid, only about $1.1 million had been spent up until a few days ago.

I can imagine how angry you would be. You’d have every right to be upset.

This may be a new low, even for government.

You may have read about the fiasco involving RISE West Virginia, the program created by state government under former Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. Initially, RISE was supposed to help businesses harmed by the 2016 floods. Its mission was expanded later.

The scandal — and it is just that — is a complex one. It has fallen squarely on the shoulders of Gov. Jim Justice, who took office in January 2017. On June 1 of that year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development approved an “action plan” to provide $104 million in flood relief funds to West Virginians. Later, $45 million was added to that.

State Department of Commerce officials were put in charge of handling the federal funds. For a time, they paid a Mississippi consultant, Horne LLP, to help with administration.

Then, a few weeks ago, it was revealed the RISE program had been “put on pause.” Justice’s office had expressed concerns about how it was being handled.

Among the governor’s worries was the fact that at one point Horne, which initially was to be paid $900,000, got a contract for $17 million. A commerce department employee was fired over the matter, it was said.

No accusations of wrongdoing have been leveled against Horne LLP, but an investigation into the affair continues. Both West Virginia legislators and HUD officials want to know why it has taken so long for the RISE program to distribute flood relief funds.

Interestingly, a Jackson, Miss., firm called Horne LLP has been in the news previously in regard to government funding. According to a March 2010 story in the Jackson Free Press, the company then was facing criticism “after a Feb. 18 audit by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General reported that the company billed Mississippi Emergency Management Agency an excessive amount of $7,751,445 for services that included paying employees up to $109 an hour to scan documents.” The Free Press website did not provide details of what happened in the wake of that matter.

Again, the West Virginia situation is complicated. But questions about the RISE program appear to have surfaced last November. It was just last week that Justice’s office said he ordered RISE operations be resumed. Six families had “been handed keys to their brand-new homes,” according to a press release.

It added that, “Along the way, (Justice) uncovered waste and abuse and stopped the state from losing $8 million that can be used to help our flood victims.”

Well, good. It’s nice to hear that RISE is back to doing what it was supposed to have been accomplishing for many months.

The question is: Why did it take so long? Could problems not have been investigated without delaying distribution of flood relief money? Can the bureaucracy not walk and chew gum at the same time?

So there are two scandals for legislators, and perhaps HUD, to probe. First is what happened to prompt Justice to “pause” the program.

Second is why the pause took so long while flood victims suffered.

Mike Myer can be reached at mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

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