Statehouse Beat: Justice’s very own ‘Caine Mutiny’ | Phil Kabler


One of my favorite movies is “The Caine Mutiny,” about the court marshal trial of an officer of the USS Caine for leading a revolt of officers to remove the ship’s paranoid, unstable captain from command.

In the pivotal scene, Captain Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) testifies against the officer and goes into a bizarre rant about a quart of strawberries missing from the officers’ mess and how he would have torn the ship apart to find the incriminating duplicate key to the pantry that would prove the strawberries had been stolen (a key that exists only in his delusions), had he not been relieved of duty.

In mid-sentence, Queeg stops and his eyes tear up, as he realizes that, through his testimony, he has confirmed all the allegations made against him.

I thought of that movie Wednesday, when Gov. Jim Justice forced state Public Health Officer Dr. Cathy Slemp to resign after what seemed to me to be the equivalent of a missing quart of strawberries: A data entry error on the state’s COVID-19 dashboard, that resulted in the database showing 90 more active cases than what the state actually had.

(As was pointed out, Justice effectively fired Slemp for data entry errors by underlings, while he has taken no disciplinary action to date regarding the state spending over $500,000 for what turned out to be counterfeit N95 masks.)

I suspect the data entry error was merely pretense, and that Dr. Slemp actually sealed her fate two days earlier, when during the Monday COVID-19 briefing, she warned viewers about a 28-percent jump in new cases in the state in the past two weeks, mimicking surges we’ve seen in other states that have tried to reopen too quickly.

I’m told that, behind the scenes, Dr. Slemp urged Justice to slow down the state’s reopening plan and consider rolling back some of the previous reopening directives, requests that are anathema to Justice, who knows that shutdown businesses and high unemployment don’t bode well in a reelection year.

Dr. Slemp’s credentials are impeccable (Princeton, Duke and Johns Hopkins). She’s in that category of the best and brightest that we should be trying to keep in public service, not driving away.

Officials at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health put out a statement saying they were “stunned and troubled” by Slemp’s ouster, expressing concerns that across the country, many public health leaders are leaving their positions because of “personal attacks and harassment.”

Many made note of the distinct change in Justice’s personality and attitude during briefings in the past week.

Though billed as COVID-19 briefings, they’ve become less and less about providing useful information on the pandemic and more frequently a forum for harangues about politics and tirades over personal affronts.

On Monday, I happened to be the target. Justice called me a bum, poison to the state and called for me to be fired.

His official reason for his outburst, primarily, was a 2-week-old tweet in which he said I had mocked a 7-year-old foster child.

Here is the tweet in its entirety: “Justice briefing: Relates that 7-year-old foster child wanted him to know what a great job he’s doing as governor. COVID briefing or campaign spot?”

Are we to believe that Justice did a slow burn for two weeks, and through seven previous COVID-19 briefings, only to erupt Monday?

I suspect what really set him off were a couple things in the Sunday paper: Primarily, Joe Severino’s investigative piece on the N95 mask scandal and secondarily my column, in which I pointed out Justice was passing the buck on issues of mandatory mask-wearing and on removal of the Stonewall Jackson statue.

I also live-tweeted about the hour-plus delay of the start of Monday’s briefing. When he arrived at the Capitol about 45 minutes late, I pointed out, “From time of arrival, usually takes aides 10-15 minutes to brief him on day’s briefing.”

On Wednesday, Justice also reacted to a perfectly reasonable question about a perfectly reasonable request from the Kanawha County Commission to release $10 million of $1.2 billion of federal stimulus funds that have been sitting in a proverbial vault for two months to set up a small business grant program.

To Justice’s mind, this was all a political set-up, to the extent he asked if the letter was written on “Salango for Governor” stationery.

“All it is, is another political stunt,” Justice ranted, saying of the county commission, “If they want to put the Salango headquarters there, put it there. I don’t care.”

For the record, the county commission isn’t the first to ask why Justice has released less than $16 million of the $1.25 billion federal CARES Act appropriation over two months, and he didn’t unveil anything approaching a plan for appropriating the stimulus funds until Friday.

Nonetheless, there must be something more behind Justice’s outbursts and agitation.

Part of it may be that, after handling the early days of the pandemic admirably, closing schools, businesses, activities, and imposing a stay-at-home order, heeding advice of his health care experts, Justice is seeing his COVID-19 policy unravel in his rush to reopen the state. The number of new COVID-19 cases have increased by 36% since June 1, including 101 new cases Thursday and Friday.

Finally, I’ve noted here the seeming contradiction between Justice declaring it safe to return to restaurants, bars, retail locations, beauty and barber shops, fitness centers, bowling allies and movie theaters, but finding that it’s still too risky to resume in-person COVID-19 media briefings in the very large and airy governor’s reception room at the Capitol.

Justice is clinging to the teleconference format since it gives him complete control over the selection of reporters who are called on to ask questions and precludes all-important follow-up questions.

On any given day, 12 to 16 reporters participate in the teleconference, with six to seven selected to ask questions.

Although the administration claims that the selection process is completely random, observation suggests otherwise.

Local TV news reporters are consistently called on at every briefing. Other reporters seem to have favored status, including one from a Cumberland, Maryland, radio station with limited listenership in West Virginia.

His first question to Justice was, “Can you put into words how much the National Guard means to you?”

Others who might ask more challenging questions, such as AP’s Anthony Izaguirre, West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Dave Mistich and, I would like to think, me, languish around the Mendoza Line in the frequency of getting called on for questions.

So being the poisonous bum that I am, I sent this Freedom of Information Act request to Nathan Takitch, Justice press secretary and media coordinator for the briefings:

“I am requesting copies of, or the opportunity to review e-mails and other internal communications regarding the process to select reporters to participate in the Q-and-A portion of the governor’s COVID-19 virtual press briefings.

“This would include documentation of any guidelines for randomly drawing names prior to briefings, if this is indeed how reporters are selected, as well as any correspondence between yourself, the governor’s office, Gov. Justice, Legal Counsel Brian Abraham, the communications office, and senior advisor Bray Cary regarding the selection process, and any preferential treatment given any selected reporters.”

I received this response from Berkeley Bentley, deputy general counsel to Gov. Justice, on Wednesday: “A search for records responsive to your request was conducted and no such records have been identified.”

Are we to believe there’s nothing in writing regarding the selection process? At the very least, there must be lists of the order of reporters to be called on during each briefing — or does everyone commit the call order to memory before each briefing?

Conversely, the lack of a written policy for randomly selecting participants would confirm that the process is not at all random.

If the governor’s office wanted people to believe the selection process is at least somewhat random, there would be documentation of some written procedure for selecting names, whether that be through the use of random number generator software, through drawing of names from a hat, or some similar process.

Having no written policy not only confirms that the process is not fair and equitable, but that Justice makes no pretense of pretending it is fair and equitable.



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