Advertisement

COLUMN ONE : Scandals as Thick as Coal Dust : West Virginia is suffering from an extraordinary run of corruption. But perhaps more unusual is that politicians are finally getting caught.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As governor, Arch Alfred Moore Jr. may have been dirty through and through, but he knew how to keep his fingernails clean. Say what you will about his three terms, “Arch” was always a well-barbered sort, with nary a lick of silver hair out of place and the proper neckties to match the $1,000 suits that hung just so.

His manner was so unruffled and respectable that even West Virginians suspicious of his failings are shocked at the sleaziness suggested by a recent indictment--among the allegations: that he bought votes with fistfuls of cash and hid out back of a municipal incinerator concocting stories to give the slip to a federal grand jury.

H. Paul Kizer, a millionaire coal man, is one of those now dispensing juicy accounts of Moore’s villainy. Kizer’s company was expecting a $2.3-million refund from the state Black Lung Fund, and he says the governor promised to “slice through a lot of red tape,” for a 25% cut of the dough.

“Well, what was I supposed to say?” the coal man asks. “I didn’t do anything right away, but I’m smart enough to know that I was the ant and he was the elephant.” Soon, state environmental inspectors began hanging around Kizer’s operation, finding enough wrong to shut it down.

Advertisement

“I called Arch,” Kizer says. “He told me, c’mon over to straighten it out, and when I got there he said: Remember that 25%.”

These shameful days, the story of this alleged $573,721.47 shakedown is just one of many to hit Charleston like a series of methane explosions. There have been 18 months of scandals in high places, a fireworks of sex, stupidity and greed extraordinary even for this notoriously corrupt state.

It is as if a conveyor belt has been installed to carry slag from the Capitol building itself, hauling off the treasurer, the attorney general, two state representatives, the Senate majority leader and two Senate presidents.

And now maybe Arch, too. In May, Moore, governor from 1969 to 1977 and then again from 1985 to 1989, pleaded guilty to five counts of extortion, fraud and obstruction of justice. Sentencing was to be July 10, but a week ago he surprised everyone by asking to withdraw the plea and go to trial instead.

Advertisement

In a formal motion, due for a hearing on Monday, Moore now contends he felt too much pressure and surrendered himself hastily. Certainly, he has shown no stomach for cooperating with investigators as he had once pledged to do.

Doubtless, this is a relief to some.

The prospect of the former governor baring his soul is enough to make many of the Big Coal boys and local party bosses as skittish as a covey of partridges.

Crooked government may be as much a tradition here in West Virginia as gouging coal from the mountains, but the fact that so many politicians are getting arrested for it--with details emerging in interviews and court files--is a new twist on an old tale.

Advertisement

“When you look at what’s been going on it’s a race between corruption and incompetence to see what will get you out of office faster,” says Joe Savage, the assistant U.S. attorney who has handled many of the cases.

“It seems there has been a for-sale sign up at the Legislature for some time. And at the governor’s office the sign was in blinking neon.”

All this corruption is sadder yet because West Virginia is so bad off, the second-poorest state in per capita income. The recovery of the ‘80s passed here without stopping. Some 70,000 mining and manufacturing jobs disappeared.

During the decade, the state fell $400 million into debt. Doctors and hospitals began turning away government employees who paid their bills with state insurance. The number of families on welfare increased by 50%.

Advertisement

In the narrow and windy hollows, it is not unusual to find families scrounging the ground for lumps of coal to fire their furnaces.

“Really, we can’t afford statehood,” says Don Marsh, editor of the Charleston Gazette. “We are a colonial adjunct to the rest of the country; we’re Third World, we really are.”

Arch Moore, now 67, is a short, robust man with crafty political instincts. In office, he was a master of patronage who knew who owed him, from the county highway superintendents to the crew on the night shift at the state hospital. He had an airtight memory for names and could talk a pork chop past a wolf.

His speeches were dandy. He was a champion ribbon-cutter, quick to claim credit for every new road and bridge. In the 1970s, federal revenue-sharing was an open tap, and popularity came to anyone who could make a good show of handing out the buckets.

Advertisement

Some folks complained that Moore had an “edifice complex,” busying himself with things such as gold leaf for the Capitol dome instead of the affairs of state. But actually he was a detail man. He knew how almost every dollar came and went--and allegedly how some might find a way into his pocket.

The IRS investigated him for tax evasion in 1973 but never made an arrest. Three years later, the governor was acquitted on federal charges of extorting $25,000 from a shaky financial holding company that wanted a bank charter. During the trial, it was disclosed that he once kept $180,000 in cash stuffed in his desk drawer.

These accusations--with rumors in tow--sullied him. Moore was not made of Teflon. Rather, so much seemed to stick that it was hard to focus on any one splatter. Did he really rig elections? Did he squeeze bribes from businessmen? Did he make secret deals with the coal companies?

“There was always talk,” says Will Brotherton, a former Senate president and now chief justice of the state Supreme Court. “But Arch had a lot going for him too. He was a doer. . . . And he had the good fortune, at least in his first terms, to be the governor when the state had some money.”

Advertisement

He was a bona fide phenomenon, a successful Republican in a state where Democrats hold a 2-1 edge. He had been a six-term congressman from the northwest part of the state, yet he also knew how to win down south.

Historically, election fraud has been pervasive in the state’s southwestern counties, where the rugged, mountainous terrain not only was a barrier from one place to another, but from prosperity as well.

Early in the century, coal companies held sway there with the power of medieval lords. Miners lived in company towns and bought company supplies with company scrip. On Election Day, they voted the company slate.

Later, with the companies no longer so mighty, political bosses took over. Their choices for office routinely became the people’s, and they enforced their will by controlling school jobs and road work and welfare checks.

Advertisement

These bosses were nominally Democrats, but they were not against helping a Republican if he had the money. Cash was the grease of the political machine as voters slipped pre-marked ballots into the box in return for a $5 bill.

One charge against Moore is that he spread grease with the best of them. If proven, no one will be stunned. In Mingo County, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 7 to 1, Moore always made a good showing--he even carried it once.

“Sure, Arch hauled cash into Mingo, because that was the only way to level the playing field if you’re a Republican,” says Hike Heiskell, a former secretary of state who is chairman of the state GOP.

A man named Johnie Owens was Mingo’s political boss until he was caught selling his job as sheriff for $100,000. In prison now, he is fond of telling about the night he agreed to meet Moore on the campaign trail.

Advertisement

The impeccably dressed candidate scrunched low at the sight of oncoming headlights, Owens says: “Arch laid down in the back seat of my car holding $12,000 up in his hand like a common criminal and he begged me to take it.”

Even in his prime Arch Moore was not the most popular politician in the state. That distinction most likely belonged to a bow-legged 280-pounder with a nose big as a turnip bulb, A. James Manchin.

In 1973, Gov. Moore named this former small-town schoolteacher to head REAP, an agency whose main purpose was removing the thousands of junked cars that littered the state’s roadsides and stream banks.

Manchin used the rusty heaps as magnets for the TV cameras. He danced amid the eyesores, waving a sledgehammer and proclaiming an end to “jungles of junkery” and “bastions of bacteria.”

Advertisement

Those abandoned clunkers transported him to fame. In 1976, he was elected secretary of state, a job with a nice title and few duties. He had time to make speeches, and no town was too small and no event too obscure.

Manchin gave them an earful at potluck suppers and kindergarten classes and sewing clubs. Few homes lacked a memento he left behind, a souvenir card of the state seal or a certificate for good citizenship.

A thickset, shamelessly corny man, he dressed in dark pinstripe suits and rumpled shirts, his head topped with a white fedora. He seemed like nothing so much as a Muppet creation of a Mafia don--and people loved him.

When he talked, it was in a series of sentimental adages and poems spoken in an exaggerated singsong. “Yesterday is a canceled check,” he liked to say. “Tomorrow is a promissory note. Today is cash. Spend it wisely.”

Advertisement

That commendable advice may well have been all A. James Manchin knew about finance, so it surprised some when he decided to forsake the office of secretary of state in 1984 for that of treasurer.

In the new job, he continued the hectic glad-handing. He was there at the peewee wrestling tournament in Buckhannon and the Cherry River parade in Richwood and the safety awards in Parkersburg.

This schedule left little time for the treasury, where things had taken on a frenzy of their own. Manchin’s staff had shunned the professional money managers and were speculating like back-alley crap shooters.

Customary practice is to invest state operating funds in a safety-first manner. Instead, the money was placed in high-risk securities where millions were chanced on a single up or down tick of interest rates.

Advertisement

By early 1987, the treasurer’s office was making trades of $7 billion a month, more than triple the amount in the fund itself. And by April, a state report shows, early successes had taken a sorry turn; West Virginia took a hit for $90 million.

Worse times lay ahead. At Manchin’s impeachment hearings, losses were totaled at $279 million. The treasurer pleaded ignorance. He said he did not know things had gone sour; his staff had kept him in the dark.

Besides, had they informed him, he might not have understood. “Sometimes I don’t always have the knowledge,” he apologized. He was unfamiliar with all those complicated investment terms, reverse repos and put options and such.

And he did not know what parentheses stood for--those curved lines the accountants place around a number to indicate it has sunk into the red.

Advertisement

Last July, A. James Manchin suddenly retired at age 62, shorting out the impeachment process and holding onto his $2,000-a-month pension.

The beloved politician’s downfall would have been shock enough, but it was followed only a month later by the resignation of that handsome young attorney general with the catchy name, Charlie Brown.

The state’s chief legal officer had weathered trouble before. In 1986, he was charged with leaning on staffers to pay off his campaign debts. He was acquitted then, only to commit career suicide over a more personal matter.

In a child custody hearing last spring, Brown’s ex-wife introduced some of his papers. A compulsive note-taker, he first denied the scribblings were his, then later tried to undo the deception as if he was scraping gum off a shoe.

Advertisement

This exposed him to possible perjury charges, county prosecutors say. Worse yet, it focused attention on the writings themselves, which seemed to involve a plan to pay $50,000 in hush money to a former secretary who claimed to need an abortion.

Among the random notations were what appeared to be the public man’s private thoughts: “It’s clogging my head so bad I can’t move . . .” and “Was a sweet guy, morally committed, til I was in politics.”

There were also sentence fragments about raising the needed money followed by a list of initials. This prompted investigators to wonder just how much cash Charlie Brown had gotten up--and what he did to get it.

In the end, the attorney general struck a deal, stepping down in return for a halt to a state grand jury’s lingering curiosity. It was yet another civics lesson in what was becoming a long course in West Virginia political reality.

Advertisement

The Legislature was corrupt--not all of it surely, but enough of the wormy apples were at the top to make the whole barrel look bad.

L.T. Anderson, an old-time newspaperman in Charleston, liked to say that the state’s legislators would “take hemorrhoids if they were being given away.” And in some cases that was not far from true.

The senators and delegates were only part-timers, making law two months out of the year, then returning home to other careers that were not always that substantial. It helped to get a free meal on top of the government per diem.

Such kindness was a specialty of lobbyist John Vandergrift. Every night, he stopped at six or eight restaurants, asking lawmakers if they needed a “pigeon” to pay for their steaks. “Sometimes, they’d even call me in my hotel room, and I’d jump in a taxi and go down to pay a tab,” he says.

Advertisement

Vandergrift’s clients had thick wallets. By his count, in 1984 and 1985 he doled out $180,000 in hospitality on behalf of just one of them, a group of foreign doctors who needed a law to assist them in getting recertified.

Delegate Bob McCormick of Logan said he saw nothing wrong with the bill, though he was distressed he “had not heard from the doctors” in his reelection campaign. The lobbyist provided a $5,200 contribution.

This quid pro quo might have stayed hidden except that Vandergrift hadn’t paid income tax since 1972. When the feds began looking at the Legislature, the IRS put the squeeze on the lobbyist and out popped the guilty McCormick.

In fact, by last summer, it seemed there would soon be enough lawmakers in federal prison for a quorum call. Another lobbyist, Sam D’Annunzio, also had tax problems. And “Sammy D.” had a lock on the Senate leadership.

Advertisement

In September, former Senate President Dan Tonkovich pleaded guilty to extortion. He had been using his “public relations” business as a front to strong-arm money from people who needed his legislative clout.

At trial, Tonkovich had hoped to defend himself with testimony from his successor as president, Larry Tucker. But just before opening arguments, Tucker himself confessed to taking a $10,000 bribe from Sammy D.

It also had been Sammy who helped with the loan payments of Senate Majority Leader Si Boettner, a gift Boettner did not report on his taxes.

Trial testimony described how one day Sammy D. looked for Boettner all over the Capitol. A bill close to D’Annunzio’s heart was due for consideration, and Boettner was nowhere to be found.

Advertisement

Finally, the majority leader walked up the corridor. Sammy D. greeted him with a forceful shove against the marble wall.

“You son of a bitch,” he said, “you owe me $80,000. Get in there and vote like I tell you to vote.”

The feds probably would have indicted Arch Moore anyway, but it helped when he lost the 1988 election. Witnesses no longer had to worry about a governor’s muscle. And some witnesses, definitely, had need to make a deal.

Paul Kizer, president of Maben Energy Corp., was granted criminal immunity. The way he tells it, there was nothing subtle about how Moore coaxed bribes from a citizen’s pocket: “And what were you going to do about it, tell the state trooper outside the door?”

Advertisement

Not that Kizer was easy to bully. He was raised in a coal camp and went to college on a football scholarship. He is a rough-hewn man in a tough business with many millions of dollars in reasons to appreciate a crooked politician.

His version of events that led to the indictment: After Moore assisted with the $2.3-million Black Lung refund in 1985, Kizer was slow to kick back the 25% until a flunky phoned to say: “The man in Charleston wants to know what’s going on.”

The governor then stayed out of Kizer’s checkbook until late 1988. By then, polls showed Moore running behind Democrat Gaston Caperton, a wealthy insurance executive born into velvet britches. Arch wanted $50,000.

That “contribution” was $49,000 above the legal limit, but Moore assured Kizer that campaign laws could be sidestepped by funneling the money through the Republican National Committee.

Advertisement

“He told me there’s a lot of things I can do for you,” Kizer says, and he listed among them lucrative tax credits and even a pardon in a criminal matter then pending against the coal man.

As it turned out, Moore lost the election and the pardon was unneeded. But that still left the matter of the tax credits. Arch Moore, lame duck governor, offered to give it full attention in his final weeks.

“He told me he was going to be unemployed pretty soon; he needed money and he wanted to be put on a retainer, you know like he was going to do legal work for me,” Kizer says.

“He asked for $8,600 a month for the next eight years. Then he pulled the papers right out of his desk and told me to sign them.”

Advertisement

Actually, when the agreement arrived by mail, the numbers had been changed. The coal operator now was consenting to $150,000 up front and $12,500 a month. “Arch was always up to something,” he says.

Less than a year later, Kizer got a final summons from the by then former governor. The heat was on, and the feds were snooping everywhere. People were being subpoenaed. Moore wanted to make sure that his friends knew how to testify.

Kizer flew up from Beckley to Charleston in his company helicopter. There to meet him was one of Arch’s men, and Kizer figured the two of them would head on to Moore’s law office or maybe even a hotel.

Instead, the coal man says, the car turned down a remote street along the Elk River. It sped up a ravine onto a winding path called Twilight Drive. Then it pulled into a paved lot beside a soot-covered building with a rusted tower.

Advertisement

This was the one-time Charleston municipal incinerator. And there, Arch Moore, a three-term governor of West Virginia, was waiting to explain the exact shape of the lies that would cover their tracks.

Michael Carey, the U.S. attorney in Charleston, is a native West Virginian. He is proud of all the indictments, though it bothers him that “some people think this is the only state with corruption; there’s a lot elsewhere.”

That is a good point. Still, there are few states where the knavery has seemed so embracing--and tolerated. “There’s an old saying, that folks here prefer experience to honesty. . . . " says Don Marsh, the newspaper editor.

“The Appalachian coal miner, whose mentality dominates state politics, kind of admires people who get away with ripping off the system.”

Advertisement

Now, with so many going off to prison, this may be changing. Recently, the Legislature passed a code of ethics. While skeptics say they might just as well have tried to ban the eating of corn bread, time will tell.

And time moves on. Lobbyist John Vandergrift is no longer around to pick up the restaurant tabs. He has begun a new life in another state.

Sammy D. is gone as well. Anxious and morose over events, he took a final swig of beer after reading the paper one morning, then walked out to the garage and swallowed the barrel of a high-powered rifle.

Gaston Caperton, the rich insurance man, has been governor now 1 1/2 years. “A total mess,” he calls the government he inherited. “Can you believe it, the gas company was about to shut off the gas at the governor’s mansion because the bills were unpaid?”

Advertisement

With A. James Manchin retired, an appointed replacement keeps a closer eye on the treasury’s investments. Generally, the state is in a better way financially, though some of that results from a new 6% sales tax on food.

Predictably, with higher taxes as an example of honest government, many people feel honesty may not be the best policy after all.

The latest polls show the public thinks Arch Moore was a better governor than Gaston Caperton, even if 81% believe Moore belongs in jail.

For his part, the usually spry former governor is reclusive these days. He lives in the quiet town of Glen Dale on the Ohio River.

Advertisement

He has said nothing about his troubles since the now-regretted guilty plea, though a few acquaintances continue to hear from him.

Among them is Paul Kizer. The coal man never answers, but, as has been his custom, Moore still sends him a monthly bill for $12,500.


Advertisement
Advertisement