CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia’s Department of Health and Human Resources plans to fire one of three officials reassigned to work from home last year over a dispute arising from a contract’s bidding, in the wake of an as-yet-undisclosed investigation by the Cabinet office’s inspector general.
Department spokeswoman Marsha Dadisman on Tuesday said Assistant Secretary John Law will be dismissed Jan. 23. Noting that Law was a will-and-pleasure employee, Dadisman cited state personnel policy and declined further comment.
As its communications director since 2001, Law has been the public voice of a sprawling department with a $4 billion annual budget and duties that include the state’s Medicaid program. The 56-year-old was barred from the department’s main office in July along with Deputy Secretary Susan Perry and general counsel Jennifer Taylor. That action followed a running disagreement over the awarding of a six-figure advertising contract.
Court documents have since alleged that Law, Perry and Taylor raised concerns about how others at the department scored the technical merits of bids from four vendors. That scoring allowed Ohio-based Fahlgren Mortine to win the contract with a $473,000 bid, the highest among the four filed. While signed for one year, the contract can be extended and its value can increase if other agencies piggy-back on the services it provides.
The inspector general sought a search warrant through the Kanawha County prosecutor’s office in September for the state-issued cellphones, email accounts and office records of the three officials. That filing alleged that Law, Perry and Taylor conspired to steer the contract toward the lowest bidder, The Arnold Agency, which had won the previous version of the contract. Among other actions, the three repeatedly tried to second-guess or overrule other department staffers while arranging to extend the previous contact for two months amid the scoring dispute, the search warrant request alleged.
Perry and Taylor responded with separate whistleblower lawsuits in October. Besides blasting the search warrant allegations as designed to harm their reputations, the lawsuits also criticized the technical scoring. Taylor’s called it “a poster child for arbitrary and capricious.” Those cases remain pending, with a judge weighing whether to combine them.
The inspector general has since finished his investigation and filed a report within the last month with Kanawha County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Plants.
It’s still a pending investigation, Plants said Tuesday, but “I suspect that by the end of the month we’ll have a decision made based on the evidence.”
Like Perry and Taylor, Law has continued to receive work assignments and pay since July. Law said he’s been compiling news summaries, reviewed department manuals and wrote an agency guide for communications from home. Dadisman said Perry and Taylor remain on “administrative reassignment.”
Walt Auvil, a lawyer representing Perry and Taylor, did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. Also represented by Auvil, Law had chosen not to sue. But Law said Tuesday that he must consider all options to protect his interests.
“That may be inevitable,” Law said regarding a legal challenge.
Besides overseeing communications, Law has also been the department’s day-to-day liaison with the Legislature. Along with working with lawmaker, Law said highlights of his tenure have included promoting resources for at-risk mothers and recent progress on reducing West Virginia’s teen smoking rate, the fifth-worst among the states. Such efforts save lives as well as taxpayer dollars, Law said.
“What stands out are the public health issues,” he said.