PARKERSBURG, W.Va.-(WTAP) Update: 1/31/2020
At least one member of the Wood County Commission is expressing frustration over the months-long legal standoff involving the county's Republican party and its ousted chairman.
That case remains in Kanawha County Circuit Court. A call to the Charleston-based court Friday indicated no activity had taken place since the suit was filed by Rob Cornelius, removed from the post last summer by party chairwoman Melody Potter.
Roger Conley, whom Potter named to replace Cornelius, said Friday he remains in that post until a judge in that case rules otherwise.
Wood County Commission President Blair Couch Thursday expressed concern the case has gone on this long.
"I would chastise the Republican party that, if they didn't think this is what the end game would be, they don't think very hard."
Couch, a loyal Republican, was speaking as County Clerk Mark Rhodes announced he was appointing former circuit clerk Carole Jones as the Republican ballot commissioner, a two-year appointment beginning February 1.
The dispute was a factor this week in what normally is a routine appointment for the upcoming Wood County elections.
Both Conley and Cornelius made nominations for that position on behalf of the Republican party.
In an e-mail Thursday to WTAP, Cornelius praised Jones' background and experience. Conley told us Friday he is "100% OK" with the appointment.
Conley, contacted Friday, said Cornelius has no right to make a ballot commissioner appointment while the court case is still in progress.
Cornelius' in his statement, said, "It is critical that no one involved in yet another fraudulent takeover of the Wood County Republican Committee be in position to interfere in these sacred election processes and appoint officials to their own benefit."
UPDATE: 8/21/19 3:20 P.M.
Rob Cornelius gave his input on the lawsuit on Wednesday afternoon. despite the lawsuit, he feels no resentment.
"This is about protecting elections in Wood County really. I mean people come here to vote, people in my neighborhood voted for me, people around this county voted for everyone on our committee, and it's important to know that their vote counts. Someone in Charleston can't just call up and say: 'Hey, you're not office anymore,' that's not how democracy works.
Cornelius also added that his lawyer is a Democrat and that this is a bipartisan effort to protect voting.
UPDATE: 8/21/19 12:30 P.M.
The ousted leader of the Wood County Republican Executive Committee filed a lawsuit seeking his reinstatement on Wednesday.
Rob Cornelius’ lawsuit in Kanawha County Circuit Court names West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner and Melody Potter, who chairs the West Virginia State Republican Executive Committee.
Potter removed Cornelius, a steady critic of Gov. Jim Justice, from his leadership role in Wood County in June, saying he “engaged in an extensive smear campaign” against her and the state’s Republican Party. She later submitted a new roster for the county executive committee to state officials that included six new members. She also appointed Roger Conley to replace Cornelius.
In the lawsuit, Cornelius seeks his reinstatement and a return to the roster he submitted as chairman, contending that Potter did not follow due process in removing him from the post.
“Chairman Potter’s attempted remover of Petitioner was in violation of his rights including his state constitutional right to serve the office he was elected to, his right not to be removed from that office without complying with principles of due process, and his right not to be removed from a county office absent compliance with West Virginia Code 6-6-7,” the suit said. “As such, Petitioners attempted removal by Chairman Potter was ineffective and should not have been recognized by Respondent Warner.
Wood County voters elected Cornelius to the county GOP committee in May 2018. The committee then elected him to a four-year term as chairman in July 2018.
It’s not the first time Cornelius has battled with local officials. In 2015, several members of the Wood County Republican Executive Committee sought to remove him as chairman, but that effort failed.
Update: 7/15/2019 5:00 P.M.
Cornelius told us Monday he has canceled all meetings of the Wood County Executive Committee into September, citing questions about recent appointments of membership.
Roger Conley, appointed Cornelius' successor by state GOP Chair Melody Potter, says Tuesday night's regularly scheduled meeting will go on as planned. He says it is set for 7:30 P.M. at the Judge Donald Black Annex.
Rob Cornelius, removed last month as chairman of the Wood County Republican Party Executive Committee, has lost his appeal to the state party.
Cornelius made the decision known in a statement Monday morning, which, in part read: "The voters of Wood County elected
a fine Republican Executive Committee, who in 2018 deemed it provident to elect me unanimously for a second term as its Chair".
Cornelius said he plans to take his case to the West Virginia Secretary of State's office, attaching a letter to Secretary of State Mac Warner stating his intent to seek a writ of prohibition essentially reinstating Cornelius and members of the Executive Committee recently replaced by state GOP Chair Melody Potter.
"We will attempt to compel them via writs to uphold West Virginia Code 3-1-9 and Chapter 3 generally by denying this arbitrary attempt by the West Virginia Republican Party to take control of the Wood County Republican Party and choose new members in violation of both West Virginia state law and the civil rights of Republican voters countywide," Cornelius' statement read.
We have reached out to Cornelius, the Secretary of State's office and Cornelius' named replacement, Roger Conley, for comment.
When contacted this morning, Potter said only she was doing an "exclusive interview" on a statewide radio talk show.
A news report from Charleston says the chairwoman of the West Virginia Republican Party has named six new members to the Wood County GOP Executive Committee.
That comes after state chair Melody Potter last month removed its chairman, who she said had repeatedly criticized her.
MetroNews reports the committee-including the newly-named members-signed a letter supporting Potter's removal of Executive Committee Chairman Rob Cornelius in June.
Potter, when contacted by WTAP and by MetroNews, declined to comment.
"There will be no comments or interviews from me while this process is moving forward," Potter said in a statement. "It is important that I represent the WV Republican Party in a professional and wise manner, while at the same time treating Mr. Cornelius with dignity. Thank you for your inquiry."
Potter announced last month Cornelius had been removed as Wood County Executive Committee Chairman and replaced with Roger Conley.
Conley, in an e-mail to WTAP last week, indicated he would be sending the West Virginia Secretary of State's office a letter supporting Potter's actions. Conley did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Cornelius responded with this statement, in its entirety:
"The MetroNews story makes clear that those attempting to fraudulently take over the Wood County Republican Committee are at their very core, dishonest tools of a failing Governor.
It sad to see once-trustworthy people like Melody Potter and two-time Fake Chairman Roger Conley involved in this sort of dishonesty.
Their attempts to disenfranchise the legitimate members of our Republican Committee and violate the Civil Rights of Republican voters county-wide are obvious.
Wood County elections are sacred, and the proper authorities will see fit that our elections are protected from illegal tampering.
We will not stand silent while losers attempt to steal our local elections. I am taking every legal step to ensure a pathetic tyrant like Melody Potter cannot interfere in legally elected committees here, Kanawha, Harrison or any other county Party that has taken stands against Crooked Jim Justice.”
Rob Cornelius says his removal and replacement as chairman of the Wood County Executive Committee was illegal and improper.
Cornelius Friday filed an appeal with the West Virginia Republican Party, seeking to have the removal by state party Chairwoman Melody Potter nullified.
In a six-page letter, Cornelius claims deficiencies in Potter's action, including his removal and replacement with Roger Conley on June 18.
He argues he was removed for using his First Amendment rights, referring to remarks made about Potter and her leadership of the party and support for Republican Governor Jim Justice, whom Cornelius has spoken out against.
He also says Potter chose Conley as his replacement instead of choosing from Vice-Chairmen Douglas Ankrom and Roger Brown.
Cornelius argues Potter violated party rules in dismissing him prior to the end of the term for which he was elected.
"This push for a removal by improper external means of a successful county chairman is neither in the best interests of both public policy, nor those interests of the Wood County Republican Party, the West Virginia Republican Party or our other elected officials, candidates, and registered voters," the appeal states.
"While Chairwoman Potter may not personally like the Wood County Chairman, other officers or elected or appointed members, simple dislike is not enough cause for a removal."
The appeal would likely go to arbitration, and, if unsuccessful, be resolved in circuit court.
Wood County's Republican Executive Committee Chairman is vowing to fight his party's state leadership-and, possibly the Secretary of State's office-over his removal last week.
The Secretary of State's legal counsel, Donald "Deak" Kersey, told us it does not have the authority to challenge the actions of a political party in, in this case, determining the management of county committees.
Cornelius told the commission Thursday he plans to pursue the matter in court, saying, "the election system is under attack".
He maintains he and other member of the executive committee were elected by voters, and that if the chairwoman of the Republican Party could remove him, she could remove any elected official.
The West Virginia Secretary of State's office tells us it legally has no say in how organized political parties can regulate themselves.
"It doesn't make any sense, but they have said, 'we want no part of this, let's all go to court'", Cornelius said after his meeting with the commission. "I'm working under advice of counsel right now, but I'm going to appeal this process to the state Republican Party, and file an administrative appeal, and then file a suit or mandamus of some sort, to get the secretary of state to do their job and follow the law."
Cornelius, in a discussion with Commission President Blair Couch, said the only way a public official could be removed is the petition process.
Cornelius, in fact, filed the petition to remove then-Parkersburg mayor Bob Newell. A hearing before a three-judge panel was scheduled, then canceled, when Newell announced he was stepping down a day before the hearing was to begin.
Legal Counsel Kersey said the issue is new territory for the office.
"We don't have legal or regulatory authority over party disputes," Kersey said, "and the courts are pretty clear on that point. The courts will not interfere in inter-party disputes, and they just leave the settlements of those disputes to the methods that have been used and adopted by local parties."
A spokesman for the Secretary of State's office noted if there's a court decision in the matter, it might set a precedent for the discretion the political parties have traditionally to operate on their own.
There's a new chairman of the Wood County Republican Executive Committee.
State GOP Chair Melody Potter Friday announced Roger Conley has been named acting chairman, until a permanent chairman is named.
Conley told us Friday afternoon his top priority is next year's state and national elections.
"We need to work our tails off," Conley said, "to make sure the people we have in office can remain in office. We need to make sure we find Republican conservative candidates to fill any seats we don't already have."
Conley owns Conley Manufacturing, where Governor Jim Justice recently appeared on behalf of his 2020 reelection campaign.
Rob Cornelius is out-at least for the time being-as chairman of the Wood County Republican Party.
GOP Chair Melody Potter made the announcement in a letter to local party members, and obtained by media outlets, including WTAP.
"Mr. Cornelius has engaged in an extensive smear campaign against both myself and the West Virginia Republican Party," West Virginia GOP Chairman Melody Potter said, in a letter provided to WTAP by Cornelius. " Mr. Cornelius misled the public and said I have accepted political contributions in exchange for 'betraying the values of our entire team;'"
Potter later went on to say, "Mr. Cornelius has called me a 'disappointing liar' and has referred to me on Twitter and in public appearances as a 'prostitute' multiple times."
Cornelius, in a statement, said the state GOP was ousting him for speaking his mind about its public support for Governor Jim Justice, whom Cornelius has publicly criticized.
"Our First Amendment not only protects this precious right, it encourages it and thousands of brave men and women have fought for this country to protect it. Our freedom to speak against our government is what separates us from places like North Korea.
No matter how much Governor Justice would like it to be, this is not an autocracy, and information is not required to be filtered through his state-sponsored, taxpayer-funded media.
Melody Potter's dedication to stifle debate, snuff out dissension, and prop up this failing gubernatorial administration shows both the weakness of his message and the weakness in her convictions to defend the values of liberty and the concepts of patriotism."
Cornelius has been a critic of Justice since he took office in 2017. Justice, elected as a Democrat, changed his party affiliation to Republican in August of that year, appearing at a rally by President Donald Trump, whom Justice has said is a family friend. The governor's change in party affiliation has not tempered Cornelius's criticism of the governor for, among other things, failure to pay his taxes. When Justice made a stop recently in Wood County, an appearance for his 2020 reelection campaign, he again publicly castigated Justice in a statement sent to party members and the media.
In his statement, Cornelius suggested he plans to fight his dismissal, essentially calling it illegal.
"With this single, ill-advised, poorly written document, Melody Potter attempts to set a dangerous precedent that should strike fear into the hearts of every member of every county Republican Executive Committee," his statement said. "(Potter's) letter clearly states that she believes through an organization’s bylaws, she can punish anybody she wants, in any manner she wants, in any county she wants."
In 2015, several members of the Wood County Republican Executive Committee sought to remove Cornelius as chairman. That effort failed.