The Voice of West Virginia
The West Virginia Public Service Commission has a thick file on Frontier Communications.
The PSC, which regulates public utilities in the state, received nearly 2,000 complaints about Frontier just last year. The customers were upset about the quality of phone and internet service from Frontier.*
West Virginia customers are not alone. An investigation by the Minnesota Department of Commerce in 2018 found that Frontier “failed to provide adequate, reliable phone service to Minnesota customers.” Last Month, Minnesota announced another investigation into Frontier’s “billing and customer service practices.”
The New York Public Service Commission determined last year that “several Frontier Communications subsidiaries have significant service-quality problems, including escalating complaint rates, lengthy repair durations, and localized reliability issues.”
There’s even a website—frontier-sucks.com—where angry customers vent and exchange horror stories about the service.
The company is in deep financial trouble, with $16.3 billion long-term debt and $356 million in debt payments due March 15. Bloomberg reported recently that Frontier is “asking creditors to help craft a turnaround deal that includes filing for bankruptcy by the middle of March.”
Frontier released a cryptic statement about its financial condition. “Frontier’s business and operations are solid and serving our customers remains our top priority. As we have said publicly, Frontier is evaluating its capital structure with an eye to reducing debt so as to be able to better serve our customers.”
West Virginia PSC Chair Charlotte Lane told me on Talkline last week that the agency is on top of the issue. Last year, it ordered a management audit after repeated service complaints. That audit is scheduled to be finished by March 19.
Lane said the agency will use the audit to determine a way forward to improve service for Frontier’s 300,000 customers in the state. “I think we have a lot of power and we will exercise it,” she said.
Analysts believe Frontier over expanded over the last decade, spending $10 billion in cable and broadband just as customers were starting to cut the cord. Additionally, Frontier’s purchases included some aging wired and rural networks, such as the Verizon system in West Virginia.
However, Frontier knew what it was getting into when it moved into West Virginia and the company made a commitment to quality service. The landlines remain vital in West Virginia because many parts of the state do not have reliable cell service.
West Virginia customers don’t care much about debt restructuring by their communications company. All they want is what they are paying for—reliable service. The responsibility rests with the PSC to ensure that happens.
*(The West Virginia PSC does not regulate internet service. The agency forwards those complaints to the West Virginia Attorney General’s Office.)
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Two West Virginia business owners were sentenced to multiple months in prison each on Monday after failing to pay employment and income taxes.
Russell and Karen Rucker operated Rucker, Billups and Fowler Inc., an insurance agency based in Huntington. Rusell Rucker served as president since late 2013, and Karen Rucker was the financial officer.
The Ruckers failed to pay $143,226 in payroll taxes from wages, diverting funds for their benefit. When facing pressure from the IRS, the Ruckers deposited the money into the bank account of another person. The couple also attempted to evade IRS levies by using a series of bank accounts undisclosed to the IRS.
The Ruckers also sought to not pay Russell Rucker’s individual income taxes for 2001, 2002 and 2005. The loss to the IRS is at least $250,000.
Russell Rucker was sentenced to 18 months in prison, and Karen Rucker sentenced to six months in prison.
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A North Carolina doctor admitted to authorities Monday to traveling to West Virginia to take part in a racketeering operation.
Dr. Roswell Tempest Lowry, 85, began working at the Charleston HOPE Clinic after learning about the position in May 2014. The HOPE Clinic was a facility that aimed to address chronic pain through medications.
Lowry did not have any experience in pain management. During this time, Lowry traveled from North Carolina to West Virginia and stayed at a hotel while working.
Lowry admitted customers’ files were not being properly kept and lacked relevant medical information. Most customers paid with cash, with many patients from outside of the state.
For his work, Lowry received hourly pay and a bonus based on paying customers.
Lowry faces up to five years in prison. His sentencing date is May 4.
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Multiple advocacy groups have come together in asking West Virginia lawmakers to make changes with the state’s criminal justice system.
Representatives of the groups on Monday urged lawmakers to tackle multiple issues connected to a problem facing the state’s jails and prison: overcapacity.
“We’re talking about folks that have paid their debt. They’ve paid their debt to society,” said Jason Huffman, state director for Americans for Prosperity.
“The fact of the matter is the folks that end up incarcerated are going to be released one day. It’s in everyone’s best interest that these folks come out better than they went in.”
Americans for Prosperity and other organizations are asking state lawmakers to take steps to reduce the state’s prison population, including transitioning to a pretrial system not based on bail fees, utilizing sanctions already on the books and establishing forfeiture reporting procedures.
The coalition notes the state’s correction facilities are at more than 25% overcapacity, and the prison population has increased by 50% since 2000.
“We believe that West Virginia should meet its overcrowding crisis head-on with a comprehensive criminal justice package that protects due process, ensures proportionate punishment, and better supports successful reentry, to reduce the number of individuals who are unnecessarily trapped in the justice system.,” the groups stated in a Jan. 23 letter.
Huffman was joined by leaders of the ACLU of West Virginia, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, American Friends Service Commission, the state chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, the West Virginia Citizen Action Group. Mountain State Justice, the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy, the Catholic Conference of West Virginia and the Office of the Kanawha County Public Defender.
The groups are also requesting to allow individuals to petition for their charges to be expunged as a result of a plea arrangement.
Huffman noted West Virginia already has expungement, but the policy should be broader.
“When people are re-entering society, they are seeking to become active and a contributing member to society,” he said. “We want to see that expungement expanded.”
The groups are also pushing for the expansion of the Fresh Start Act, a federal law allowing people to expunge certain nonviolent offenses from their records.
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Ridgedale Elementary School will soon open a two-story, eight classroom addition, giving the institution much-needed space and allow the next phase of improvements to begin.
During an appearance on WAJR-AM’s “Ask the Educator,” principal Sheri Petitte said the student body has increased from 400 students to more than 500 pupils over the last five years.
“As we continue to add students, it becomes more and more crowded and we have used every space in that building in order to have a classroom,” she said.
Petitte said the new building is attached to the existing structure and will house pre-K and upper elementary grades. Once this portion of the project is complete, they will begin additional work.
“The second part of phase I will take one of our hallways that we have five existing classrooms and renovate those into kindergarten classrooms that meet the state code policy but, most importantly, meet the needs of our students,” she said.
Petitte also noted the drop-off area will be enhanced to improve car and bus traffic.
WAYNE, W.Va. — A transition jumper by Kierstin Stroud with fifteen seconds to play and a defensive stop lifted Wayne to a 63-59 win over Nitro in a compelling Cardinal Conference matchup.
While the game tied at 59, Stroud sprinted down the court and connected on a jumper from the elbow, giving the Pioneers a 61-59 lead. With five seconds left, Nitro’s Baylee Goins, who led all scorers with 25 points, could not connect on a corner 3-pointer which would have given the Wildcats the lead. Wayne grabbed the rebound and made a pair of free throws with under a second remaining to secure the win.
“We did show a lot of composure,” said Wayne head coach Wade Williamson. “We came off a really bad loss the other day where we didn’t show a whole lot of composure. We’ve grown a little bit and have made plays in situations where we didn’t make them in before.”
The first half featured eleven lead changes and neither team led by more than five points. Nitro led 27-26 at halftime. The Pioneers opened the second half on a 12-2 run, giving them their biggest lead of the game at 38-29.
“We were able to hold them to one shot and then we were able to get out and run ourselves,” Williamson said. “We got some transition buckets to start the third quarter.”
The Wildcats however closed the third quarter on a 7-1 run, cutting the deficit to 39-36 at the end of the frame.
Neither team led by more than four points in the fourth quarter. Goins’ 3-pointer with 45 seconds left gave the Wildcats a 59-57 lead. A pair of Wayne free throws evened the score at 59, setting the stage for Stroud’s heroics.
Sara Hooks led Wayne (12-2) with 16 points. Alana Eves added 15 and Jasmine Tabor chipped in with 14.
Goins (10-5) led the Wildcats with 25 points and Brooklyn Bowen added 14.
This win likely gives the Pioneers an inside track on a top two seed in their sectional tournament.
“It is big for us to maybe get a couple of home playoff games. We still have a lot of work to do. There’s still a whole month of games left.”
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — One West Virginia University student is dead and a second student is in critical condition following an incident last weekend near Philadelphia.
Chole Robertson of Orlando, Florida, died in a vehicular crash. Bobbiann Gubbei, of Mantua, New Jersey, is at a Philadelphia-area hospital. Robertson and Gubbei studied criminal science.
An investigation is underway.
A candlelight vigil took place Monday night at Woodburn Circle.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Attorneys for the “Big Three” opioid drug distributors want another 18 months to prepare for a trial in a case filed by the city of Huntington and Cabell County but a federal judge said Monday that’s probably not going to happen.
“You asked for 18 months? I’m not inclined to give you anything close to 18 months,” U.S. District Judge David Faber said during an hour long status hearing.
Faber did order cross briefs to be filed within 10 days on the issue of whether the trial should be a jury trial, like drug distributors AmerisourceBergen, McKesson and Cardinal Health, want or a bench that Huntington-Cabell has stipulated to.
Huntington Mayor Steve Williams said as far as he’s concerned a bench trial or a jury trial would accomplish the same purpose.
“There will be people put on the stand. They’ll have to swear an oath. They’ll have to answer factually what has occurred in our community. Nearly 100 million opioid pills have been distributed in Cabell County over a 10-year period,” Williams said.
The lawsuit, filed in 2017, blames the “Big Three” for fueling the crisis. The case was part of a group of similar cases being considered in federal court in Cleveland but was recently released back to U.S. District Court in West Virginia’s Southern District.
Most of Monday’s hearing was spent arguing about how soon a trial should take place.
Attorney Paul Farrell, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, told Faber he could have discovery completed and be ready for trial within a few weeks.
“We need a trial date. We need closure. We need an end of the road,” Farrell said. “Certain aspects of this case are in the can (ready to go). All I need from them is a list of suspicious orders and due diligence files.”
Plaintiff’s co-counsel Rusty Webb said after the hearing the 18-month request by the drug distributors was insulting.
“Most, if not all, of the general discovery was done in Cleveland,” Webb said. “Most, if not all, of the major motions were ruled upon in Cleveland.”
McKesson attorney Mark Lynch told Faber the Huntington-Cabell case is “much more serious” than the other opioid cases discussed in Cleveland.
“Eighteen months in a good number in getting the case ready for trial,” Lynch said. “He (Farrell) knows we have requests for documents that he can’t provide in 30 days.”
Farrell said the “Big Three” are stalling with a purpose in mind.
“What this really is—it’s a delay in justice,” Farrell said.
AmerisourceBergen attorney Robert Nicholas said that’s not the case.
“We’re trying to protect ourselves so we can defend ourselves,” Nicholas said.
Faber didn’t set a trial date Monday but said he would following another status hearing in March.
“Let’s get moving on discovery,” Faber said. “I intend to set a trial date after that (March) status conference.”
Along with the briefs he ordered on the bench-jury trial issue, Faber also ordered a case management filing within two weeks.
Lynch did shed some light on what the defense would be for the distributors. He said they believe a previous settlement with the state on the opioid issue covers political subdivisions like Cabell County and Huntington. He also questioned the standing the plaintiffs have to file a nuisance case against the distributors.
“The plaintiffs can’t recover nuisance damages before they passed a nuisance ordinance in 2017,” Lynch said.
Lynch added the statute of limitations issue would also be raised in the months leading up to the trial.
Plaintiff’s attorney Anthony Majestro told Faber the question of Joint and Several Liability would also be argued. He said the companies were both jointly and individually responsible for dumping the pills in West Virginia.
Mayor Williams said in the end having a trial is the biggest priority.
“There will be a day that they will be standing in front of the citizens of our community and we will be able to respond,” Williams said.
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WHEELING, W.Va. — Closures to Interstate-70 in Ohio County, one of the busiest highways in the state, is set to begin on Monday, February 3 and the traffic concerns are creeping in.
A public meeting that was held Monday in the county by the West Virginia Department of Transportation outlined the project, detailed the detours and answered any questions the public may have.
The interstate’s westbound lanes are anticipated to close between Exit 2A, WV Route 88/Oglebay Park, and the Exit 1B U.S. 250/WV Route 2 interchange, for nine months.
There will be work starting on a complete demolition of the Fulton Bridge before a brand new bridge will be built. The work is part of the roughly $180 million I-70 Ohio County Bridges Project that will work to enhance the condition on 26 bridges and ramps.
Tony Clark, the Division of Highways District 6 Engineer, told MetroNews that the Fulton Bridge and many parts of the bridges being worked on were constructed in the 1950s and are due for repair.
“Not that they are in danger of collapse but there are issues on all the bridges that we are working on. There are different issues with each bridge,” Clark said.
Some bridges in the project, that spans from the Ohio line to the Pennsylvania line in the county, are getting touched up while others are getting new beams and decks and some are being completely torn down like the Fulton Bridge.
Clark said the main issue and reason for having to close an entire direction of the interstate is the Fulton Bridge was constructed in a way where a rebuild of half can’t happen. DOH usually does the work in phases being able to shift traffic and not having to close all lanes one direction at one time.
Following the nine months of closure on the westbound lanes in that certain area of the bridge, the eastbound’s turn will be up. Clark said the timing of the work was centered around Oglebay Park’s Festival of Lights celebration from Thanksgiving to early January that brings thousands on that route.
“The plan is to have it (westbound lanes) open by late November, early December of this year when the Festival of Lights kicks off,” Clark said. “Then have more substructure work, like they’ve been doing, on the eastbound structure over next winter. The eastbound will then be closed around this same time next year.”
The eastbound lanes will not be affected during westbound construction, but they will be closed this time in 2021 for nine months into the winter of 2021-2022.
The Oglebay Park exit, Exit 1A, will be the main detour from the project. Clark said all traffic using I-70 will be detoured off that exit and onto U.S. Route 40, which travels through the Fulton neighborhood of Wheeling and up over Wheeling Hill. From there, vehicles can get back onto I-70 westbound in downtown Wheeling.
Traffic that does not have a specific Wheeling destination off I-70 is being asked to use Interstate-I470. I-470 starts at Elm Grove community and runs to St. Clairsville, Ohio, avoiding the majority of Wheeling.
Clark said his biggest concern with the traffic will be potential bottlenecks on U.S Route 40 in Fulton. He said that DOH officials will constantly monitor the traffic patterns and may make timing adjustments on traffic signals, if necessary.
The Fulton Bridge replacement is the largest piece to the multi-million Ohio County project but Clark said there will still be plenty of additional work to do when it’s over. A projected finish date is Summer 2022.
Members of the public who could not attend the meeting at the Highlands Center in Triadelphia on Monday are being asked to submit comments, electronically, to firstname.lastname@example.org
DOH officials said the best thing that travelers can do is pay attention and slow down.
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Lawyers for Delegate Mike Caputo declared legislative immunity in a misdemeanor battery case, and it paid off.
The charges against Caputo, D-Marion, were dismissed by Kanawha Circuit Judge Tod Kaufman, who took over the case after the legislative immunity question was raised.
Caputo, in a statement Monday afternoon, said he is pleased the judge saw it that way. Caputo is running now for a state Senate seat.
“Obviously, my family and I were very pleased to learn that the charges against me have been dismissed,” he stated. “I hope this matter is finally over.”
Caputo’s lawyers cited a piece of state code giving lawmakers immunity from criminal charges when the Legislature is in session.
Kaufman wrote that the code was intended to help elected officials focus on their official duties.
“Our founding fathers knew that protecting legislators to assure they are free to participate in legislative proceedings was critical and vital to our system of government,” he wrote.
“The most important privileges granted to all members is a right to enter, to be present to vote, and to otherwise participate in legislative activities.”
The incident that resulted in charges against the delegate took place not only during the regular session — it was right at the chamber door that leads into the House of Delegates.
Caputo’s anger was sparked March 1 during GOP Day at the Legislature because of a poster that showed an image of an airplane crashing into the Twin Towers on 9/11 juxtaposed with Congresswoman Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who is a native of Somalia. Pamphlets described “The Four Stages of Islamic Conquest” and “Readin’, Writin’ and Jihadin’.”
Caputo, speaking publicly minutes later to fellow delegates, acknowledged getting so angry he kicked the door to the chamber open during the start of each day’s session that includes a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance.
The incident happened with just a few days left in the regular legislative session.
“Because this legislative act committed within the legislative sphere is statutorily protected activity, Defendant cannot be prosecuted criminally and will be shielded from the issuance of extraordinary writs with respect to his legislative acts,” Kaufman wrote.
Caputo was charged in September with misdemeanor battery after angrily storming through the House chamber door.
Doorman Logan Casterline was struck as the door was forced open. After the incident, the complaint states, Casterline complained of pain and sought medical treatment.
Caputo was also accused of making physical contact with then-Delegate Sharon Malcolm. Malcolm died later in September at her home. Staff for her re-election campaign said she passed away peacefully in her sleep.
He publicly apologized after the incident and also had a private conversation with the doorkeeper.
Today, Caputo again said he is sorry.
“I apologized before, both to the House publicly and the young man personally, and I’m still sorry for my actions,” he stated. “But I can say without reservation that I had no intention of hurting anyone.”
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