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Dems call for investigation into WV Department of Transportation over alleged conflicts of interest

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Dems call for investigation into WV Department of Transportation over alleged conflicts of interest

Oct 03, 2023 | 2:19 pm ET
By Lori Kersey
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Dems call for investigation into WV Department of Transportation over alleged conflicts of interest
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West Virginia Department of Transportation Secretary Jimmy Wriston speaks at a legislative interim meeting on Dec. 6, 2021. (Will Price | West Virginia Legislative Photography)

The West Virginia Democratic Party on Tuesday called for an investigation in the state Department of Transportation after recent allegations that Secretary Jimmy Wriston awarded millions of dollars in state and federal road contracts to an engineering firm that employs his son. 

Recently, news outlets have reported that Wriston was involved in the awarding of projects to Michael Baker International Inc., an engineering firm where his son, Adam Wriston, has worked for 15 years.

Wriston signed two contracts in 2020 to pay more than $25 million to Michael Baker International, the Gazette-Mail reported last month. 

Federal regulations say that no “employee, officer or agent of the contracting agency” shall participate in the awarding of contracts supported by federal funds if there’s a conflict of interest, including when there’s a financial interest in the consultant selected by any member of his or her immediate family. The reporting also said the state had not disclosed the potential conflict of interest to the Federal Highways Administration.

WSAZ recently reported that documents provided to the news station through a Freedom of Information Act request indicate that in April 2021, when he was acting commissioner of the Division of Highways, Wriston was a voting member of a committee that shortlisted Michael Baker International to be one of three firms considered to for a project replacing the Glenville Truss Bridge. 

According to the news report, a spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation denied that Wriston served on committees that hired the firm for Glenville Truss and demanded the station retract the story. She provided the station with the names of five people she said served on the committee. Only one of those names matched the document the reporter received, she said.

In an on-camera interview, Nate Tawney, an attorney for the department, told the news station Wriston served on the short list committee and ultimately signed the contract hiring the firm but was not on the selection committee that chose the firm. He denied that Wriston serving on the short list committee and signing the contract constituted a conflict of interest.

In a statement Tuesday, Democratic party chairman Mike Pushkin said, “The Department of Transportation can’t have it both ways. Either Secretary Wriston participated in the selection of his son’s company or he didn’t. 

“Either way, Secretary Wriston must explain why his department released two sets of documents that contradict each other about his involvement in the awarding of contracts to his son’s company in violation of federal law,” Pushkin said. “There’s an old saying that says ‘it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up.’ Since the Governor’s office and the Department of Transportation aren’t being forthcoming with an explanation, the U.S. Attorney’s Office should investigate this matter.”

An email to the Department of Transportation was not immediately answered Tuesday. A spokesperson from the office of U.S. Attorney Will Thompson responded, but did not provide a comment.