Thrasher hits back at charges by Gov. Justice

CHARLESTON — Besides allegations by the Governor’s Office that he’d mishandled West Virginia flood relief, Woody Thrasher was hit with two more claims as he was forced from office.
Now running for governor, Thrasher disputes them both.
Thrasher, in a series of media interviews last week, defended his role in how long-term flood relief has been handled in West Virginia.
He also addressed two more allegations that arose after he was forced out as Commerce Secretary.
One was his oversight of a loaned executives program at the department. These were experts from private companies who were on loan to Commerce. One was Clay Riley, an executive vice president with Thrasher Group.
The other allegation claims Thrasher allowed private businessman Steve Hedrick to catch a solo flight on a state plane to meet up with Commerce officials for a trip to China and then stay another day to network.
Thrasher disagrees that either of those amounted to wrongdoing.
“Couldn’t believe they criticized that,” Thrasher said. “First of all, it was a long-term policy when you’re recruiting industry for West Virginia, you take someone with you who knows that industry.
“If you’re in automotive, you take somebody who knows automotive. If it’s tourism, you take somebody who knows tourism. If it’s petrochemicals, you take somebody who knows petrochemicals.”
Hedrick leads the MATRIC development firm based in South Charleston. He has been at the center of a proposal to build an Appalachia Storage & Trading Hub promoted by West Virginia’s elected leaders.
The storage hub was believed to be one of the main investment targets when West Virginia hatched an agreement with China Energy in late 2017.
“When this China thing came to the forefront, I went to the person I thought knew the most about it, and that was Steve Hedrick,” Thrasher said. “Absolutely he was a valued partner.
“To be criticized for flying my friends all over the world couldn’t have been further from the truth.”
As part of that arrangement, Hedrick wound up alone on a $4,228 state airplane flight to Chicago to link up with the trip.
“Took him on the state plane to Chicago instead of D.C., so he could catch the plane we were on because the other direction was weather delayed,” Thrasher said, “and I’d do it 100 times again.”
Thrasher acknowledged Hedrick also stayed over in China a day longer than the rest of the group to network.
“Come on, man, we’re trying to get a shale hub in West Virginia. We’ve got some Chinese interested in investing. By all means, Steve, stay on. So I was certainly encouraging of that.”
Brian Abraham, general counsel for the Governor’s Office, said the decision was wrong.
Contacted Friday, he said it reflected poorly on Thrasher’s judgment.
“The issue with Hedrick was one of self-dealing. Then that became a question of his ability to spot conflicts and manage those,” Abraham said.
Abraham characterized Hedrick’s additional day as an effort for his own business.
The hub is estimated to cost $10 billion. Hedrick was in a business partnership to pursue it, but the project had political and financial backing from government.
The vehicle for the project is a nonprofit consortium called the Appalachia Development Group, which was incorporated in Delaware in 2017. Hedrick is the CEO.
“It wasn’t that he stayed the extra day, but that he stayed the extra day and tried to get a loan for his personal businesses when he had gone over there representing himself as a member of the West Virginia delegation,” Abraham said.
“If you go wearing your own hat, good. You can’t go in the door wearing a government hat and then switch out once you get in there.”
Loaned executives
Thrasher also hatched an idea to directly involve experts from West Virginia’s private business sector in development efforts by the state.
“Which I thought was my best damn idea,” Thrasher said when the subject came up.
It was called the Excel program and embedded executives from private businesses in the agency.
Thrasher said it came about when he took over Commerce and evaluated surrounding states as competitors.
“And I saw the staffing they had. And I looked at the staffing we had and I saw we were woefully neglect. So I said, ‘OK, how am I going to get the racehorses I really need to make a difference?’ ” he said.
He recruited loaned executives to work outside their sphere of influence with another set of retired, expert executives.
“This is great stuff. This is how we move forward,” Thrasher said last week. “These are people who love West Virginia. They’re so talented.”
One was Clay Riley of Thrasher Group, which was owned by Thrasher, although he had entered into a blind trust. Riley worked on identifying available sites for development, an ongoing challenge for West Virginia.
Thrasher noted the group also had engineers from competitors, Potesta & Associates and Terradon Corp.

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