State Agriculture Commissioner Gus Douglass, who is retiring after five decades serving the state, said one of the men vying to replace him is trying to hurt his family and his reputation.
Douglass, 85, took exception to remarks made recently by Sen. Walt Helmick, one of the five Democrats in the race.
Helmick said recently he is concerned about settlements the Board of Risk Insurance Management has made with people who file suit against the state. In particular, Helmick cited a $75,000 settlement the board made in 2008. The case involved Douglass and sexual discrimination and workplace retaliation claims filed by a woman in an agency Douglass oversees.
Douglass said Helmick was bringing up the matter because Douglass had endorsed one of Helmick's opponents in the Democratic primary.
"I'm surprised and disappointed that Sen. Helmick chose this course of action due to my endorsement of Steve Miller to be the new commissioner of agriculture for West Virginia," Douglass said.
Douglass said he recognized Helmick's strategy from 2008 when Republican Mike Teets, one of Helmick's close friends, also talked about the settlement and featured it in a campaign ad.
"It wasn't successful then, and I don't believe it will be well-received by West Virginia's voters now," Douglass said.
"To try to hurt my family and reputation in what Sen. Helmick sees as a campaign tactic is indefensible. In our past interactions, I found Sen. Helmick to be a reasonable person. Apparently I was misled the same way he is attempting to mislead the voters in an attempt to gain an office for which he, in my opinion, is not qualified."
Helmick, unlike previous agriculture commissioners, does not farm in the traditional sense. He operates a company that bottles water drawn from a spring on property he owns in Pocahontas County.
The matter at the heart of the $75,000 settlement and the men's back-and-forth involved sexual discrimination and workplace retaliation claims made by Carolyn A. Hefner, an employee of the West Virginia Conservation Agency. The claims were never evaluated in a courtroom. Instead, the state settled the case.
According to a copy of a complaint that was apparently never filed in court, Hefner alleged she had had an ongoing series of sexual encounters with Douglass. The complaint said Hefner felt she had to continue the relationship to avoid retaliation.
Douglass spokesman Buddy Davidson said Douglass denied the allegations when they were made.