Barbara Hollingsworth: West Virginia: Last in everything but pork and corruption

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who was killed in a plane crash earlier this month in his home state, was known as “the grandfather of earmarks” for securing millions in federal funding for pork projects, including the infamous “bridge to nowhere.” The proposed bridge to Gravina Island, population 50, was never built, but it became a national symbol of government waste.

West Virginia Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin, who built his own bridge to nowhere over the Shenandoah River eight miles north of Harpers Ferry, is currently running for the seat left vacant by the death of another world-class porkmeister, Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd.

Byrd, the one-time Ku Klux Klansman, was later dubbed the “King of Pork” by Citizens Against Government Waste for helping to secure more than $1 billion in pork that somehow never managed to trickle down to the average citizen. Of West Virginia's 55 counties, 52 have not seen any economic growth since World War II.

Manchin's $153 million bridge is 140 feet wide and as high as the Washington Monument, but it dead-ends at the state line in a 22-foot-wide, two-lane country road that the Virginia Department of Transportation has already determined will never be widened.

The governor's experience in pushing through this useless political boondoggle in an impoverished state where 39 percent of existing bridges are functionally obsolete will no doubt be useful preparation for the Senate, where wasteful pork projects and back-room deals are the norm rather than the exception.

An ongoing federal investigation into bid-rigging for work done in the governor's office and State Capitol in 2005 has already ensnared Charleston businessman Clark Diehl, who will be sentenced on Friday. Diehl pleaded guilty in January to income tax evasion and mail fraud for bypassing the state's competitive bidding process.

The Charleston Gazette reported in 2006 that Manchin's office paid Diehl $33,000 for work, including new window treatments for the governor and chief of staff Larry Puccio, without getting competitive bids as required by state law. Gov. Manchin has also been accused of steering state workers compensation funds to a bank run by his cousin.

“It's awful, worse than the previous five administrations, and I'm including [former Gov.] Arch Moore, who went to prison,” one former state official told me. “They're like Gypsies in the castle. Once the feds start digging, Lord knows what they'll find.”

The digging has already begun. On Aug. 13, two state agencies were subpoenaed by the Public Integrity Section of the Justice Department. So was Puccio, who resigned just days before Diehl was indicted in December.

A federal grand jury is reportedly also looking into allegations that Puccio illegally pressured the director of the state's highway division into awarding 75 percent of its survey and appraisal contracts to his company, which he placed in a blind trust when he joined Manchin's staff.

The Ethics Commission also skirted a state law that prohibits staffers from lobbying for one year. Just one month after leaving the governor's office, Puccio was out lobbying his old political pals on behalf of West Virginia's powerful gambling interests and power companies.

State residents are well aware of the pervasive corruption. “Both parties have driven West Virginia to 50th place in every category that counts, including health, education, and income,” a disgusted Harpers Ferry resident told me.

“But there's Chinese Guidos in $3,000 suits from Macau hanging out at the racetracks, and bridges to nowhere being built three hours from the nation's capital.”

Now it turns out that a $4.3 million tunnel constructed beneath Gov. Manchin's bridge to nowhere has been declared structurally unsound. Just like his candidacy.

Barbara F. Hollingsworth is The Examiner's local opinion editor.

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