By ERIC EYRE
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The West Virginia Department of Transportation is reining in its highway engineers and cracking down on employees who have second jobs with private firms that pose a conflict of interest.
The measures come amid a federal corruption probe that already has snared two former Division of Highways engineers, an executive at a highway contracting business and a professor who works at Marshall University’s Rahall Appalachian Transportation Institute. The men were charged last month in a kickback scheme involving companies in South Carolina and Putnam County.
The DOH plans to terminate two contracts with a company owned by one of its former engineers who faces federal charges in the bid-rigging, pay-to-play scheme. The contracts were for renovating traffic signals in Berkeley County and replacing highway signs along Interstate 64 in Kanawha, Putnam and Cabell counties.
“We see exactly what happens with these most recent indictments, if they [engineers] don’t listen to the legal division, if they don’t take the division’s advice, they ultimately get indicted, and nobody wants that,” DOH lawyer Michael Folio told lawmakers Tuesday during a legislative committee meeting in Charleston.
The Transportation Department has ordered employees to disclose if they’ve been moonlighting with outside companies. The department will review whether those second jobs pose a conflict of interest — or whether DOH employees are doing outside work for private firms on state time.
The two former DOH engineers who face federal charges simultaneously worked for companies that held state contracts, according to prosecutors.
Similar conflicts still linger in the Division of Highways, Folio told lawmakers.
“There are individuals within [the] DOH who engage in impermissible secondary employment,” he said.
DOH workers have until Dec. 16 to fill out personnel forms that reveal their second jobs — or face disciplinary action.
“If they do not submit the form, and we do learn that they are engaging in secondary employment, the odds are very high they will be terminated,” Folio said during the joint House-Senate transportation committee meeting. “We’re taking this very seriously.”
For years, senior engineers have been drafting, reviewing and enforcing DOH contracts with outside firms — practices that agency lawyers should be handling, Folio said.
“What I’ve uncovered is we have engineers practicing law,” he said. “The problem we’re having is a cultural issue. There have been well-entrenched engineers here for a number of years who do not want to cede control to attorneys. We’re doing our best to wrest that control back.”
“We’re going to have an easier time in seeking immediate termination of these relationships,” Folio said.
The Transportation Department’s lawyers also have started to monitor mid-level managers’ communications with contractors. DOH managers must disclose meeting agendas before they sit down and talk with company officials about proposed state contracts.
“Going in, we want to eliminate any potential fraudulent activity,” Folio said. “We’re trying to ensure that, if our mid-level managers are communicating with industry, our senior management is aware of that.”
Former DOH traffic engineers Bruce E. Kenney II and James Travis Miller are expected to plead guilty next week for their roles in the kickback scheme, according to federal prosecutors. Mark Whitt, owner of Bayliss & Ramey Inc., a highway electrical contractor based in Scott Depot, also is expected to enter a guilty plea.
Marshall professor Andrew P. Nichols was indicted in the scheme but has not struck a deal with the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Federal prosecutors allege the men illegally diverted $1.5 million worth of Division of Highways projects to Dennis Corp., a South Carolina engineering consulting firm. DOH engineers received $200,000 in bribes between 2008 and 2013, according to the charges.
The DOH corruption investigation is ongoing. More people are expected to be charged in the alleged scheme in the coming week, prosecutors have said.
Also Tuesday, Folio answered lawmakers’ questions about Transportation’s lawsuit against West Virginia Paving. The Kanawha County Commission and the cities of Charleston, Beckley, Bluefield and Parkersburg also have filed suit against the paving company.
The lawsuits allege that West Virginia Paving and affiliated companies worked together to create a de facto monopoly, allowing them to charge inflated prices. In many cases, the lawsuits allege, those companies were charging cities and the DOH 40 percent more for asphalt and paving than they should have. West Virginia Paving has called the allegations “blatantly false.”
Several lawmakers asked Folio why an outside law firm — Bailey Glasser — was representing the DOT in its lawsuit against the paving company instead of Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s office.
“We’re working cordially and cooperatively with [Morrisey],” Folio said. “We recognize the attorney general is the state’s chief legal officer. Mr. Morrisey wants to be involved, and he should be involved in this action.”
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