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What in the world is going on at the DHHR?

This week, the State Police, acting on behalf of the inspector general of the state Division of Health and Human Resources, executed a search warrant to gather evidence about the awarding of a multimillion-dollar marketing contract for the division.

The warrant targets DHHR deputy secretary for legal affairs Susan Perry, general counsel Jennifer Taylor, and assistant secretary John Law, alleging the three conspired to interfere with the bidding process in an attempt to favor the Arnold Agency.

The marketing contract, which is worth up to $5 million a year, went to Ohio-based Fahlgren-Mortine. The Arnold Agency, which is based in Charleston and had the contract previously, narrowly finished second.

Fahlgren submitted the highest bid, but won the contract because it scored higher in subjective categories graded by a DHHR evaluation committee.

That triggered protests from Perry, Taylor and Law. One member of the evaluation committee is quoted in the search warrant as saying Law "went around campaigning for Arnold to get the contract" and raised concerns that if an out-of-state company got the contract, it could be bad publicity for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin in an election year.

The Arnold Agency has issued a statement saying it submitted its bid and after that, "had no communication with anyone to discuss the evaluation" of bids.

"We strictly followed the rules that govern the process," said Mark Polen from Arnold.

The warrant claims that Perry and Taylor began a "legal review" of the bid process, despite the fact that state purchasing procedures do "not contemplate a separate and independent review or legal review by other departments outside the Department of Administration."

At one point, according to the warrant, Perry and Taylor told DHHR secretary Rocco Fucillo that there were major issues with the advertising contract, but those issues are not spelled out in the document.

Fucillo apparently didn't buy it. Instead, he became concerned about interference in the purchasing process. In July, Perry, Taylor and Law were placed on administrative leave.

But Perry, Taylor and Law have a different version of events. On MetroNews Talkline, their attorney, Walt Auvil, said the three were actually whistleblowers who were trying to raise concerns about the bid process.

"None of the folks that I represent were ever in a position to make decisions about any of this," Auvil told me.

Auvil also complained about the specificity of the search warrant, which contains nine pages of allegations suggesting the three interfered with bidding procedures.

"It reads more like a press release than a criminal warrant," Auvil told the Daily Mail.

Auvil has notified the state of his intent to sue, claiming his clients have been treated unfairly.

The awarding of state contracts in West Virginia is a highly regulated process, and for good reason. Millions of dollars of taxpayer money is at stake, and the state is responsible for ensuring that contracts for services are awarded based on the price as well as the vendor's ability to do the work.

Tight regulation and oversight mechanisms are in place so individuals cannot steer contracts to specific companies, whatever the reason.

It is apparent something was amiss at DHHR, but whom do you believe? The Kanawha County Prosecutor's Office will review evidence gathered from the search warrants and decide if any laws have been broken.

At one point last May, when the controversy inside DHHR was peaking, an email from DHHR purchasing director Bryan Rosen said: "This may be headed for disaster."

That's one piece of evidence that has come out of this investigation so far that is unquestionably true.

 


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