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Faith and Switch: These Congregants Feel They Were Baited into Giving Money to Closing Churches

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Jean Ripepi, 87, remembers her first mass at St. Anthony Church. The building had two wings separated by a bell tower and stood atop a hill overlooking downtown Monongahela. She was entering a new faith and a new marriage. Ripepi had been raised in the Polish Catholic Church — a sect not affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church — and converted to her husband Angelo’s denomination after they wed.

Italian-American identity was the cornerstone of St. Anthony. The Diocese of Pittsburgh established the parish in 1904 to connect an Italian-speaking priest to the throngs of immigrants settling in industrial river towns like Monongahela. St. Anthony went through a few buildings and makeshift locations before the church that was completed in the 1950s. Jean Ripepi’s husband’s family was Italian, so of course they attended St. Anthony.

“We attended [our]first Mass in 1957 and were active members since,” she said. “My husband’s family helped sustain it.” In addition to tithes, she says various Ripepis have put in countless hours of “sweat equity,” working on repair projects and volunteering for the annual festival for its patron saint held the third weekend in June. She was confirmed as a Roman Catholic there.

Now, St. Anthony is shuttered. A sign prohibiting loitering, skateboarding and other nuisance uses that plague empty parking lots stands awkwardly outside the ornate entranceway and neatly trimmed hedges.

The Diocese of Pittsburgh closed it in 2014, claiming that Monongahela — whose population had decreased by half since its 1950 prime of 8,922 — could not support both St. Anthony and its other parish, Transfiguration. After a long and contentious process, the Diocese merged the two into a new parish, called St. Damien of Molokai, and chose the former Transfiguration building as its site of worship. (There is a difference between a parish and a church: a parish is a spiritual community recognized by a Diocese and usually allotted a priest. A church is a building where that community meets. The two words are often used interchangeably, but the distinction is important when discussing Catholic bylaws.)

St. Anthony’s Church located on Park Avenue in Monongahela, Pa. Photo: Kat Procyk/PublicSource

Not every former St. Anthony congregant has marched into the fold of St. Damien of Molokai. Some meet weekly in the Ripepi home to share covered dishes, prayers and Bible verses.

“We’ve done it ever since [the closure],” said Barbara Falappi. “We have a prayer service. It’s an excuse to get together. We do a lot of things. This is a spiritual family.”

Some of them also meet to plan a legal strategy. Five former St. Anthony congregants are suing the Diocese of Pittsburgh, accusing its leadership of defrauding them. They say the Diocese baited them into investing money to save St. Anthony when the Diocese had already decided to close the church.

“We felt like a franchise,” said Falappi, one of the plaintiffs, “that we either had to pay up or they were taking their name off the building.”

They aren’t the only ones. Former congregants of St. Agnes in Richeyville, another Washington County town, have enlisted the same lawyers — Steven Toprani and Michael Hammond of Dodaro, Matta and Cambest — and filed suit, alleging the Diocese also defrauded them into giving money to sustain a church whose fate was sealed. St. Agnes ceased regular services in 2017 and the Diocese consolidated its parish into a “mega-parish” grouping of former parishes in Washington County.

Ann Todora, 88, and Mary-Beth Gregorini, 63, listen during a meeting between plaintiffs at a house in Monongahela, Pa. on August 9, 2018. Photo: Kat Procyk/PublicSource

“They keep asking [for donations] until the parishes are merged and that’s the game they play,” said Hammond.

In the case of both mergers, the Diocese had several church buildings from which to choose as a home for the new consolidated parish. Both lawsuits say the Diocese  chose to close more desirable buildings — whose upkeeps were the result of donations and work from congregants who are being displaced. Hammond said the Diocese is intentionally shuttering the churches that fetch more on the real estate market.

Bob DeWitt, a spokesperson for the Diocese, said the organization won’t comment on ongoing litigation. Plaintiffs from St. Agnes declined to speak to PublicSource.

In November, a judge in Washington County Common Pleas Court dismissed the cases, arguing that First Amendment freedom of religion and precedents of Pennsylvania case law prevented the court from ruling on internal matters of the Diocese. An appeal to the Vatican also failed. The plaintiffs have appealed the civil court case.

Hammond said he wants to force the Diocese into discovery, the legal process by which evidence in a civil suit is viewed by both parties. He said that may shed light on Diocese financial practices. “We want to see their books,” he said.

Parish consolidation, the process that left congregants of St. Anthony and St. Agnes disillusioned and combative, will play out across the Diocese in the coming years. Citing a priest shortage and a diminishing Catholic population, the Diocese of Pittsburgh announced that it would shift its 188 individual parishes — spread out across six counties — into 57 groupings. They will no doubt shut down some churches and redirect their attendees to others.

This process can be “brutal,” pitting parish against neighboring parish, said Peter Borre, co-chair of the Council of Parishes, a Boston-based organization that advocates for individual parishes within the Church hierarchy and advised the St. Anthony congregants. “There are three or five [pre-existing] parishes trying to compete against each other, trying to survive. It can be like a circular firing squad.”

Money recently donated may again become an issue. In the years before its massive reconsolidation, the Diocese of Pittsburgh embarked on a fundraising effort, Our Campaign for Church Alive!, which was an astounding success. When the campaign began in 2012, its goal was to raise $125 million. The Diocese announced it had received $149.8 million from the faithful, with a total of $234 million pledged. Those parishioners gave under the promise of benefits to their specific parishes, parishes that the Diocese may soon effectively eliminate.

The growth and decline of Catholicism in and around Pittsburgh

When the Diocese of Pittsburgh begat St. Anthony Parish to minister to Monongahela’s Italian-speaking population, Italian immigrants were spreading across Western Pennsylvania in a vast wave, working in coal mines and steel mills. They helped build up the ranks of Catholics within the Diocese of Pittsburgh, from 270,000 in 1897 to a peak of 962,412 in 1975, according to church directories.

The Diocese of Pittsburgh located at 111 Boulevard of the Allies. Photo: Kat Procyk/PublicSource

More recent shifts in demographics have not been as kind to the Diocese. In the 1980s, deindustrialization and an exodus of young people diminished the population of Pittsburgh and its suburbs. Bishop Donald Wuerl led a consolidation of the parishes, from 332 to 218.

Catholic Church membership has actually grown nationwide by 68 percent since 1965, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. It has been buoyed in part by a new immigration wave, from Latin America. But in depopulating areas like Pittsburgh, the ranks of Catholics continue to dwindle. In 2016, Catholics in the Diocese of Pittsburgh stood at 632,138, down by about a third from 1975.

And today’s Catholics are less reliable churchgoers. According to a 2018 Gallup poll, fewer than 40 percent are in church on any given Sunday — down from three out of four attending church weekly in 1955. Many people who are counted as Catholic by confirmation do not actually participate in the church, said Borre, and aren’t financially supporting any parishes. “Lapsed Catholics are in the millions,” he said. “Society has become too secular or consumerist.”

Another major challenge is a priest shortage. While the number of priests stays steady worldwide, in the United States, it has dropped from 59,192 in 1970 to 37,181 in 2017.

“You cannot staff everything with religious sisters and deacons. There is a terrible lack of religious vocations,” wrote Jack Ruhl, a professor of accountancy at Western Michigan University’s Haworth College of Business and an expert on Diocesan finances and restructuring, in an email to PublicSource.

It’s not an attractive profession, after years of sexual abuse scandals, he said. “I had a priest friend in Chicago who told me that when he would go out somewhere [and] strangers would glare at him in disgust or would actually say nasty things to him. Who wants to be a priest today?” There are the disincentives of a celibacy vow and low pay and “like the comedian Rodney Dangerfield, they ‘don’t get no respect.’”

St. Damien of Molokai Parish located on West Main Street in Monongahela, Pa. Photo: Kat Procyk/PublicSource

The Church is ordaining fewer priests in the U.S. and the Diocese of Pittsburgh has fewer Catholics for them to serve than in decades past. Taking all that into account, Bishop David Zubik unveiled a plan last April to reduce 188 individual parishes into 57 groupings, with decisions to come concerning which churches in each grouping stay and which are shuttered. (In some cases, churches that are part of “mega-parishes” stay open as auxiliary sites, available for weddings, celebrations and/or holiday Masses.)

In Washington County, a process like this started 10 years ago.

The saint of lost things

In 2007, the Diocese launched a study to determine the viability of parishes in Monongahela, Donora and Charleroi, three depopulated towns in the Mon Valley. Two years later, the study was completed and recommended the merger of St. Anthony and Transfiguration. Zubik issued a decree merging the parishes in 2011.

According to the lawsuit, then began two years of meetings of parishioners and clergy to discuss the possibility of keeping open both churches, served under one parish. St. Anthony still had regular services. Plaintiffs say that Diocesan representatives led them to believe that if enough funding was raised, St. Anthony would remain open. They claim they reduced the church’s debt load of $144,000 to $44,000 in one year and a private donor offered to pay the remainder, but the priest of the new St. Damien of Molokai parish refused it. They also claim that $2 million was spent on renovations, including the installation of a new roof.

Laura Magone, one of the plantiffs, blesses herself after leading the opening prayer at a meeting at Jean Ripepi’s house in Monongahela, Pa. on August 9, 2018. Photo: Kat Proyck/PublicSource

Laura Magone, one of the plaintiffs, said she and other congregants gave as much as they could to “show that we have an interest and ability to sustain it.”

The lawsuit states that in his decree, Zubik made arguments referencing the “financial distress” of St. Anthony. These statements were “blatant falsehoods,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit alleges that the St. Anthony building is in better condition than the former Transfiguration one, which has no parking lot and had no bathroom until after the merger, at which point the parish spent $30,000 installing one.

The plaintiffs claim the Diocese kept open the former Transfiguration building and shuttered St. Anthony because it had long planned to sell the St. Anthony building, which would fetch more on the real estate market. They claim their fundraising efforts only went to making it even more profitable.

The suit alleges fraud, breach of fiduciary duty and unjust enrichment, among other claims. It seeks injunctive relief, essentially asking a judge to prevent the Diocese from selling the building.  

At the heart of the lawsuit over St. Agnes is a similar claim, according to Hammond: the Diocese consolidated parishes and left congregants in a less desirable building, so a better one can raise capital at sale.

The church building that until recently housed St. Agnes parish was constructed in the early 2000s. The lawsuit claims that in February 2015, Pastor Edward Yuhas advised the congregation via letter that St. Agnes would be closed and its parish merged with four others nearby. A month later, Yuhas allegedly told them the closure had been rescinded. The next nine months were reportedly filled with confusion over its fate, but parishioners continued to attend Mass and provided tithes, donations and offerings of at least $100,000.

A meeting between plaintiffs at a house in Monongahela, Pa. on August 9, 2018. Photo: Kat Procyk/PublicSource

The suit claims that an engineering study, ordered during the consolidation process, showed that St. Agnes’ building would have the lowest future maintenance costs. It also asserts the building is the one most central to the five former parishes, but the Diocese instead chose to house the new St. Katharine Drexel Parish in a church building in Bentleyville that dates to 1909.

The former St. Agnes parishioners are also seeking an order preventing the Diocese from selling the building.

The plaintiffs are in the uncomfortable position of battling, in court, an institution that guided their spiritual lives.

“I used to be a Roman Catholic,” said Falappi, a retired healthcare worker. “Now I am a roaming Catholic. I will never, ever give up the Catholic faith.” But she said she hasn’t joined a Diocese-sanctioned parish yet and says she lost confidence in Zubik, a defendant in the lawsuit.

The Ripepis went to a few services at St. Damien of Molokai, but Angelo has mobility difficulties and the church relies on street parking, whereas St. Anthony has a parking lot with handicapped spaces. It was too difficult to coordinate their attendance, Jean Ripepi said. A lay minister comes to their home to perform the communion ritual, a vital part of maintaining status as Catholics for them.

Attendees at the meeting between plaintiffs at Jean Ripepi’s house in Monongahela, Pa. on August 9, 2018. Photo: Kat Procyk/PublicSource

At the weekly get-togethers at their home, congregants light devotional candles to St. Anthony of Padua. A Franciscan friar who left his home country of Portugal and spent time preaching in Italy, he was an obvious choice for the patron saint of St. Anthony Parish when it was founded; he was an immigrant and familiar in the country of origin for the Italian-born congregants.

For a congregation that lost its church and its faith in its leaders, he has a new significance: St. Anthony is the saint of lost things.

The diocese is awash in donations but its spending on parishes and churches is a mystery

Catholics in the Diocese of Pittsburgh are fewer these days, but they are generous.

When a fundraising effort, Our Campaign for the Church Alive! began in 2012 with a goal to raise $125 million, Zubik promised to split the money between individual parishes and Diocese-wide efforts.

St. Damien of Molokai Parish located on West Main Street in Monongahela, Pa. Photo: Kat Procyk/PublicSource

“It will focus first on individual parishes – on the ways that parishes can continue to fulfill a vision that limited resources have denied,” he wrote in the pamphlet announcing the effort. “It will also focus on some goals for us collectively as the Church of Pittsburgh.”

Specifically, the campaign assigned each parish a fundraising goal, based on financial history and membership numbers. For every dollar raised from that parish, 40 cents was promised to go back to the parish — until it reached its goal. After that, the parish would receive 60 cents of each dollar. (Seven percent went to pay off fundraising costs and that portion was taken evenly from parish and Diocese-wide funds.) Some parishes ran campaigns concurrent to Church Alive! that went only to that parish.

The Diocese spent the money collected for its central fund on Catholic schools, tuition assistance, charitable causes, continuing education for priests and lay leaders, retirement funds for clergy and evangelizing efforts, among other uses.

Church Alive! far exceeded the Diocese’s expectations. In its 2015 report to donors, the campaign announced $62.6 million had been raised and donors had committed $230 million in pledges to be paid through 2019. In its 2016 report, the campaign had $105 million in the bank. By 2017, it blew past its goal, with $130 million in donations on hand. By 2018, that number had budged to nearly $150 million, with $234 million pledged.

The first pamphlet for Church Alive! stated that “each parish is in the best position to determine its extraordinary needs, and among them its most urgent priorities.” However, the Diocese did not simply give pastors a sum to spend as they saw fit. Each parish came up with a “case statement” detailing their desired use of the money, usually written by a pastor in consultation with lay leadership, said Diocese spokesperson Dewitt. They submitted that to an advisory council of 15 pastors from parishes across the Diocese for approval.

“Much of the campaign funding earmarked for parishes was expended on long-deferred repair projects for buildings and properties that needed to be completed regardless of future use of parish sites,” DeWitt wrote in an email. “Some donations were invested in [Americans with Disabilities Act] access, such as wheelchair ramps and automatic doors. Campaign funds also have been invested in parish programs such as faith formation and evangelization.”

Many parishes did not spend as much as they wanted to on building improvements, according to a church official involved in Church Alive! who spoke on condition of anonymity and who said his motive to talk was a need for greater financial transparency within Catholic institutions. The pastors’ advisory council routinely rejected expensive renovations and case statements that solely or largely requested money for building repairs. The Diocese had already decided that many of its buildings would be put up for sale in the coming years and preferred funds spent on evangelical and educational expenses, even at the local level, he said. The Diocese “did not want to repair buildings,” he said.

In 2015, at the height of the fundraising effort, the Diocese launched Our Mission for the Church Alive!, the program to review and consolidate all its parishes. Despite the very similar name, it is a different project from Our Campaign for the Church Alive!

There is no publicly available accounting of how much Church Alive! money went to brick-and-mortar projects. When asked for one, DeWitt pointed to the 2015 annual report. In addition to only detailing the campaign’s earliest stages, the report does not have any account of spending in parishes, only a list of “campaign results,” showing the sum pledged and percent of a target reached for each parish.

Such results by parish were only included in the first annual report. In an email to PublicSource, DeWitt wrote that  $70.8 million in total has been received by parishes for their local priorities. But the Diocese did not provide an account of how much went to individual parishes or how it was spent.

However, the campaign kept donors well informed of how the Diocese-wide money was spent from 2014 to 2017. Annual reports detailed grants totaling $44,770,400: $1 million to underwrite the costs of a full-time dentist at the Catholic Charities Free Health Care Center, $1 million to create a program for “pro-life” outreach to expectant mothers, $151,080 for new servers and software for website of The Pittsburgh Catholic, $50,000 for print and electronic media to recruit men to the priesthood and $32,000 to increase attendance at the annual Gathering of Catholic Men.

The Church Alive! campaign also issued quarterly “Good Works” newsletters. For several years, the newsletters included a section entitled “Progress in the Parishes” that outlined anecdotal church improvements across the Diocese: roof replacements, stained glass repairs, ramp installations, repaved parking lots, new boilers. Unlike Diocese-wide spending, no dollar amount was attached to these projects and there was no comprehensive account.

The summer 2016 newsletter was the last to feature a “Progress in Our Parishes” section. There seemed to be a shift in focus: In spring of 2017, the newsletter highlighted Father Michael Decewicz of St. Juan Diego Parish in Sharpsburg, for using a smaller portion of funds than anticipated on parish hall renovations and redirecting them to ministry projects for the young and the elderly.

St. Anthony’s Church located on Park Avenue in Monongahela, Pa. Photo: Kat Procyk/PublicSource

DeWitt wrote that the Diocese “neither emphasized nor de-emphasized these parish projects. They were developed, promoted and managed at the local parish level, and continue to be handled locally.” Many were “completed” so the Diocese’s “more recent updates have focused on diocesan-wide grants.”

One project promised to channel some of the Diocese’s share of funds from the campaign to “struggling” parishes outside the city. The 2013 brochure outlined the “Grants for Parishes in Need” program, saying that  $7 million would “help our sisters and brothers in parishes that are struggling in those areas in our Diocese where the Church must remain present…. where, if a parish disappears, the presence of Church disappears as well.”

“When we speak about our Diocese we speak of it as the ‘Church of Pittsburgh,’” it reads. “Yet it is important to always remind ourselves that our Church stretches from the most northern tip of Lawrence County to the most southern parish boundaries in Greene County.”

But millions from that program didn’t go to the Diocese’s geographic fringes, according to annual reports. . In 2016, $250,000 from the program went to St. Stephen in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Hazelwood to help convert a school into a community center. In 2017, $2,203,200 earmarked for “Grants to Parishes in Need,” went to a plan to reach youth in Pittsburgh, to “support of Hispanic ministry in Diocese” and to “Our Mission for The Church Alive!” – the program to consolidate parishes. (No other money for that program has been accounted for.)

DeWitt said that outreach to other cross-sections of the church was a consistent interpretation of the original intent. “Part of the diocesan-wide funds are meant to help our sisters and brothers in parishes that are struggling in areas of the diocese where the Church must remain present — and this includes assistance for urban youth and the Hispanic community,” he wrote.

One may wonder why a Diocese whose parishioners have just pledged nearly double what it asked in a fundraising campaign is drastically reducing the parishes to which those donors belong.  

The anonymous church official said the timing of the two efforts was not coincidental. Despite the sunny verbiage of Church Alive! promotional materials, the Diocese expected to have fewer buildings and less of a presence in the future, he said. Church leaders saw that congregations had aged and Church Alive! was prompted by the knowledge that Baby Boomers may be the last sizable and wealthy cohort involved in churches in the Diocese. For some parishes, this would be the last era in which they would be able to pay off a debt load. The official said, “There was frank recognition that going forward, we would have fewer people.”

Who Owns a Church?

Parish consolidations have occurred throughout the history of the church and have been prevalent recently in parts of the Rust Belt and Northeast where Catholic participation is declining, said Borre, who founded the Council of Parishes to counter parish mergers in his native Boston. The Pittsburgh plan is the widest and most comprehensive he’s seen.

These plans can play out with acrimony, particularly when churches are closed. “That’s when it hits the faithful right in the gut,” Borre said. Many churches have been parts of congregants’ lives since birth and the site of confirmations and weddings. It’s particularly fraught when the Diocese sells the location and former congregants look at their old church building and see “a bar or some condos.”

Often parishioners go to lengths to demonstrate to the Diocese that their congregation can support itself — or at least do better than the other congregations nearby whose church may remain open as the home of the newly merged parish.

Borre said he helps parishes apply all the way to the Vatican, but in the end they have to accept: “The Catholic Church is not a democracy.”

Laura Magone, one of the St. Anthony plaintiffs, said parishioners in the Mon Valley always understood the Diocese of Pittsburgh controlled how their church was run. “We know that money goes up the river and orders come down from it,” referring to the Monongahela River with which her town shares a name.

None of the St. Anthony plaintiffs gave to Church Alive!, instead dedicating their money to trying to save their church — which they ultimately consider theirs.

“We think of our church as our church,” Magone said. “The Diocese said everything belongs to the Diocese.”

They’ll press their claim in court. Magone hopes that as the Diocese merges other parishes and as other congregations consider pressing their case against a Diocesan decision, their effort shows that there are options besides just shuffling into a pew in a church across town. “We didn’t know what to do or who to believe when this started,” Magone said. “Now we can show others what they can do.”

This article was originally published by PublicSource. PublicSource is a nonprofit news outlet that empowers citizens in the Pittsburgh region by exposing wrongdoing, reporting untold stories and engaging the community in creating a better future for all. Visit us at publicsource.org.

Nick Keppler is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer who has written for Reuters, Slate, Mental Floss, Vice, Nerve and the Village Voice. Reach him at nickkeppler@yahoo.com.

This story was fact-checked by Oliver Morrison.

Appalachia

‘If We Can’t Mine Coal, What Are We Going To Do?’

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In this excerpt from the book After Coal, documentary filmmaker Tom Hansell describes how his media work in the coalfields of Central Appalachia led to a different understanding about what might come next for coal communities.

“EPA = Expanding Poverty in America.”  

See also: BEYOND COAL: Appalachia and Wales. Jim Branscome reviews Tom Hansell’s book “After Coal”

This statement is written in three-foot-high letters on a banner stretched over a bandstand in a public park in Pikeville, Kentucky. It is June 2012 and I am just starting production of the After Coal documentary. The crowd around me is dressed in the reflective stripes of mining uniforms or in T-shirts reading Friends of Coal and Walker Heavy Machinery. I am documenting a coal industry-sponsored pep rally before a public hearing on new water-quality regulations proposed for mountaintop-removal coal mines.  

The speaker onstage is speaking proudly of his family’s heritage in the coal industry. He concludes his passionate statement with a question: “If we can’t mine coal, what are we going to do in eastern Kentucky?” 

Good question. As a filmmaker who has spent my career living and working in the coalfields of eastern Kentucky and documenting coal-mining issues, this is an important and difficult question to answer. My earlier documentaries Coal Bucket Outlaw (2002) and The Electricity Fairy (2010) were intended to start a civil conversation between workers in the coal industry and other community members about a shared vision for good jobs, clean air, clean water, and a safe working environment. However, the conversations almost always broke down as soon as someone pointed out the obvious: the coal industry had long been the only model of economic development in the central Appalachian region. More examples of what life after coal might look like were desperately needed to move the conversation forward.  

As I struggled with the haunting question “If we can’t mine coal, what are we going to do?” the image of Welsh mining villages rising from the ashes left by the coal industry captured my imagination. I thought that if I could just learn a few details about how Welsh communities made the transition, then I could identify specific solutions to help coal communities in Appalachia. However, I quickly learned that the secret to life after coal was not that simple. …  

The author (holding the boom mic). (Photo provided.)

On my own quest for solutions, in 1990, I began my career at Appalshop, a rural, multidisciplinary arts center located in Whitesburg, Kentucky—the heart of the central Appalachian coalfields. From my young and naively privileged perspective, moving to eastern Kentucky was an act of opposition to the materialistic consumer-driven world. I had a goal of living self-sufficiently, fulfilling my needs with what I could make or grow, and buying as little as possible. And, as an aspiring environmental activist, the clear moral lines around the issues in the Kentucky coalfields, especially strip mining, were appealing. The battle call of union songs such as “Which Side Are You On” charged up my little post-punk heart.  

However, my experience at Appalshop quickly taught me that the struggles of coal communities were not as simple or straightforward as I had imagined. Working as part of this artistic collective, I produced radio and video documentaries and taught community media workshops. As a young artist and activist, I quickly absorbed Appalshop’s mantra of providing a platform for mountain people to speak in their own words about issues that affect their lives. I attended hundreds of community meetings: school board, the fiscal court, mine permit hearings, and union meetings. I also documented dozens of direct actions where citizens blocked roads to stop mining, took over government offices to protest the lack of enforcement, and set up picket lines to enforce union contracts.  

Retired Welsh miner and labor leader Terry Thomas (left) meets retired Kentucky miner Carl Shoupe (right). (Screenshot from the documentary, After Coal)

My experiences working on the front lines of the environmental justice movement in Appalachia gradually developed my understanding of the complexities of how culture, place, and politics had shaped the situations I was documenting. I witnessed firsthand the incredible power of community to support people as they faced threats against their homes and families. As a result, I expanded my ideas about self-sufficiency from an individualistic vision of each person taking care of their own needs to a larger vision of individuals living in symbiosis with their neighbors and the natural environment—community self-sufficiency. 

Participating in cultural exchanges at Appalshop also provided me with valuable lessons. Meeting artists from the mountains of western China and rural Indonesia opened my eyes to some of the universal challenges faced by regional cultures in an increasingly globalized economy. I hoped that an international exchange with another coal-mining region such as south Wales could identify resources and strategies that would help Appalachian coalfield communities create a future beyond coal.  

The process of creating the After Coal documentary took more than five years. During that time, I learned to stop looking for concrete solutions and start supporting an ongoing conversation about how to create healthy communities in former coal-mining regions. International efforts to address climate change make this challenge especially intense for coal-producing regions. As our economy shifts from fossil fuels, how can we ensure that places where fossil fuels were extracted do not continue to bear an unfair share of the costs of extraction?  

I believe there are as many solutions for life after coal as there are residents of mining communities. I hope these stories from south Wales and central Appalachia will inspire people to discover solutions that work in their home communities. 

This article was originally published by Daily Yonder.

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Appalachia

International Firm Hired to Help Off-Ballot GOP Senators with Messaging on WV Teacher Strike

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West Virginia Senate President Mitch Carmichael and other Senate GOP leaders hold a press conference on March 6, 2018, on the signing of a bill calling for pay raises for all state employees, including teachers. Photo: Will Price, WV Legislative Photography

As the 2018 midterm election approaches, some West Virginia Senate Republican leaders are making use of a large and influential worldwide public relations firm to aid in messaging about this year’s teacher strike and the economy. The politicians making use of the public relations services, which an independent expenditure political action committee is paying for, are not on this year’s ballot.

Campaign finance experts say promoting off-ballot politicians is very unusual for independent expenditure political action committees, or PACs, such as the one paying for these services. The public relations firm that’s been hired has made national headlines for its possible connection to the FBI special counsel’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Emails from employees of public relations firm Mercury, LLC, sent to West Virginia Public Broadcasting reporters — and others in news media who cover state government — have recently solicited interviews with Senate President Mitch Carmichael.

Those emails — which were sent by Mercury employees Katya Myagkova and Brent Petrone throughout the month of August — sought to have reporters speak with Carmichael regarding the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and federal legislation attempting to curb the country’s opioid crisis. The emails included a banner image with “West Virginia’s Future PAC” and signatures identifying Petrone and Myagkova as Mercury employees.

Emails between Carmichael, Sen. Craig Blair and Mercury employees — obtained by West Virginia Public Broadcasting through a public records request under the state’s Freedom of Information Act — also indicate the firm was helping GOP Senate leadership tailor messaging around a number of issues and craft a “proper narrative” regarding this year’s teacher strike and West Virginia’s economy leading up to the 2018 midterm elections, despite neither Carmichael nor Blair being up for re-election this year.

Emails Show Mercury Helped Carmichael, Blair Craft Messaging on Teachers, Economy

While records show that West Virginia’s Future PAC spent a total of $21,731 in August on digital advertising services from Pittsburgh-based company Fifth Influence in support of Republican Senate incumbents Ryan Ferns, Ed Gaunch and Tom Takubo in the general election cycle, $37,500 the committee spent this reporting period was paid to Fulcrum Campaign Strategies, for consulting and PR services mostly used by Carmichael.

In a July 19 email sent at 8:24 a.m. with the subject “Thank you,” Carmichael contacted Mercury employees Nicole Flotteron, Chapin Fay and Dan Bank — all of whom hold the title of senior vice president.

“Thank you for conducting the on-site meeting/training yesterday. Our team was very impressed with all aspects of Mercury. The outside entities that we invited and that gained further exposure to your team were equally impressed,” Carmichael wrote in the first of two emails sent to Mercury employees July 19. “We look forward to working with you to craft the proper narrative as to the West Virginia comeback story and Republican commitment to education.”

Parry Casto, from Huntington W.Va., leads a rally outside the Senate Chambers in the West Virginia Capitol in Charleston, W.Va., Monday, March 5, 2018. Hundreds of teachers from 55 counties are on strike for pay raises and better health benefits. Photo: AP

Another email sent July 19, this one with the subject line “Response to local AFT leaders agreeing with our statement” and sent at 8:37 a.m., Carmichael seeks advice from Flotteron, Fay and Bank in messaging related to teacher unions.

“What do you think of crafting a message in which we commend Christine Campbell, WV-AFT, and Dale Lee, WVEA, for agreeing with us and rejecting the socialist agenda of the national AFT?” Carmichael wrote. “The message could give credit to the WV Teachers for recognizing that the socialist policies of the left wing union bosses is not good for our state and would damage the economic recovery that is occurring under Republican leadership. Your thoughts……”

Days earlier, on July 17, Carmichael drew attention for a thread of eight tweets in which he criticized the American Federation of Teachers’ adoption of a platform at the union’s national conference in Pittsburgh.

Teachers in West Virginia — backed by the West Virginia Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia — went on strike for nine days during the 2018 legislative session demanding better wages and a permanent fix to the health care program for state employees, the Public Employees Insurance Agency.

With the Republican Senate majority once rejecting a 5 percent pay increase for teachers, the strike ended with the passage of a bill doing just that — but adding raises for all state employees — and the creation of a task force on the health care issue. The bill was passed only after being sent to a conference committee between the House and Senate, where members finally agreed to the 5 percent raises.

In the interest of full disclosure, the Educational Broadcasting Authority, which does business as West Virginia Public Broadcasting, is an independent state agency. As such, its employees also received the pay hike.

During and since the strike, leaders of teacher unions and their members have taken aim at GOP Senate leaders — particularly Carmichael — promising an education-focused takeover of the Legislature in the 2018 midterms. Through their political action committees, the unions have supported candidates they see as promoting a pro-public education agenda. The unions have largely supported Democratic candidates.

Carmichael and other top Republicans in the Senate have taken credit in recent months for the pay raise for teachers and all other public employees, despite the caucus’ holdouts that drew out the strike. Some of the messaging around teacher issues has taken place under the consultation of Mercury.

“I’m not up for re-election,” Carmichael said when asked about his use of Mercury for help with messaging on the aftermath of the teacher strike and its potential impact on the upcoming election. “I just want to make sure that the proper narrative is spoken as it relates to the teacher issue, because I think I’ve not — in my years of public service — seen anything have so much misinformation about a particular issue.”

Despite not being on the ballot for the 2018 midterms, Carmichael has been a target — with his name and face being placed on billboards and other campaign materials reading “Ditch Mitch!” and “Ditch the Mitches And Their Candidates,” referring to Carmichael and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The latter of those two advertisements also states that Carmichael was “attacking teachers and public schools.”

Carmichael argues that those efforts, funded by the West Virginia Democratic Party, have mischaracterized him in terms of what unfolded during the teacher strike.

“The press, in large measure, does a good job, but some of those opposing — the people that want to just create havoc — are distorting that message and, so, I think it’s important for the people to know the truth and to hear it as it really occurred,” Carmichael said about the narrative surrounding the strike.

CREDIT WEST VIRGINIA DEMOCRATIC PARTY

“The West Virginia’s Future PAC – which is an entity outside the legislative purview — contracted with Mercury to develop that messaging and make sure the story is told in a way that, you know, is sort of what we believe is the truth about the story and cut through all the different aspects of distortions and so forth. So, they’re working with West Virginia’s Future PAC to develop that message and make sure it gets out,” he added.

Other emails show Carmichael forwarded a June 8 email newsletter from the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce to Flotteron. A June 14 email from Carmichael to Flotteron detailed state employment numbers from May sent to members of the West Virginia Legislature from West Virginia Chamber president Steve Roberts. “I’m compiling more data and will forward in a string of emails,” Carmichael wrote to Flotteron.

An Aug. 8 email from Carmichael with the subject line “Fwd: Strikes Again?” included a newsletter forwarded to Mercury employees from The Center for Education Reform sent to Carmichael the day before. The newsletter detailed the possibility of teacher strikes by union members in Puerto Rico and Los Angeles.

More recently, Carmichael sought advice in responding to an email newsletter from the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy. That Sept. 17 email newsletter from the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy included the headline “New Census Data Shows Lack of Progress in West Virginia.”

“Help me craft response…..” Carmichael wrote in regard to the newsletter from the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy.

As for Blair, who serves as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, emails from Aug. 7 between he and Mercury staff show he asked for help when he forwarded a solicitation from D.C.-based website The Washington D.C. 100 — asking him to author a piece of writing on West Virginia’s economy for the website. According to the email forwarded by Blair to Mercury employee Nicole Flotteron, The Washington D.C. 100 is “a bi-weekly publication consisting of 100-word long stories covering key policy issues and current events.”

“Is this useful?” Blair wrote to Flotteron.

“We will write it for you. Standby,” Flotteron replied.

On Aug. 16, The Washington D.C. 100 published a short piece with Blair’s bylinetitled “Economic Growth in West VA.”

About West Virginia’s Future PAC & Mercury, LLC

A campaign finance report filed recently with the West Virginia Secretary of State’s office shows the independent expenditure political action committee West Virginia’s Future raised $320,250 from May 21, 2018 through Sept. 23, 2018. Contributors to that committee during that time period include a $15,000 donation from DuPont spin-off company Chemours as well as a list of more than 200 names of people who donated funds following a Wheeling dinner event on June 28, where the group raised $284,655.

The first general report from West Virginia’s Future PAC was due Friday, Sept. 29, but wasn’t received by the Secretary of State’s office until Oct. 1. According to the state’s campaign finance reporting system, the organization has been late in filing two of its three other reports that have been due. There is no penalty for a filing campaign finance reports after a deadline.

This image was at the top of news releases and interview solicitations Mercury employees sent to West Virginia reporters.

Among the $149,685.19 in expenses the committee paid during the first general election period from May 21 to Sept. 23, two payments totaling $37,500 were paid to Fulcrum Campaign Strategies for “strategic / communications consulting.” According to the District of Columbia’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, Fulcrum Campaign Strategies has been used as a trade name for Mercury, LLC. Company officials also confirmed Mercury does business under that name.

According to Mercury’s website, the company is a “global public strategy firm” that handles public relations, public opinion research, crisis management and mergers and acquisitions. The company’s clients include AT&T, Airbnb, eBay, The Ford Foundation, Hyundai, Pfizer, Tesla and Uber. Mercury also lobbies on behalf of foreign governments.

Mercury has come under scrutiny during the past year for possible connections to President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort. In September, Manafort agreed to plead guilty to charges in the indictment and cooperate with FBI special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

In Manafort’s indictment, two companies identified as “Company A and Company B,” were named as having done work under the direction of Russian-friendly former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Manafort spent nearly a decade as a consultant to Yanukovych and his country’s Party of Regions. A report from NBC News identified “Company A” as Mercury and “Company B” as the Podesta Group.

According to reports from various news outlets citing court filings from Mueller, Mercury could face legal trouble for their connections to Yanukovych.

“We worked for an [non-government organization] based in Brussels that supported Ukraine’s entry into the European Union, which would have driven Ukraine closer to the west and further from Russia’s influence. The project started more than six years ago and ended more than four years ago,” Mercury partner Michael McKeon wrote in an email when asked about the company’s connections to Yanukovych and the the FBI special counsel’s probe of Russian interference.

“We hired lawyers to advise us on proper disclosure, reported our work to Congress in 9 different public lobbying reports and later voluntarily filed a FARA. Any questions you may have about the work is all in the public filings,” McKeon added.

FARA is the acronym for Foreign Agents Registration Act, federal legislation requiring “persons acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts and disbursements in support of those activities,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

McKeon also said none of the Mercury employees on the project in West Virginia worked for the non-government organization and most current employees were not with Mercury at that time of the company’s work linked to Yanukovych.

Carmichael said he was unaware of Mercury’s connections to Manafort’s indictment in the Russian probe when he began working with the firm. He said he later became aware of those ties, but has no concerns about the company.

“I’ve just heard, anecdotally, somebody say, ‘You know, hey, this or that’ about Mercury. I don’t have anything other than just a cursory [understanding of those allegations],” Carmichael said.

Asked about Mercury’s work with Carmichael or anyone else in the West Virginia Senate, McKeon deferred to West Virginia’s Future PAC.

Chris Asbuy, an attorney for West Virginia’s Future PAC, provided a statement to West Virginia Public Broadcasting noting pay raises for state employees, reported economic growth, implemented regulatory reforms and other efforts by the Republican majority in recent years. He attributed those accomplishments to the GOP takeover of the Legislature in 2014.

“West Virginia’s Future PAC hired Mercury to cut through the election year political chatter and help tell this remarkable comeback story directly to West Virginians,” Asbuy wrote.

Independent Expenditure PACs

Independent expenditure political action committees, like West Virginia’s Future, are created to expressly advocate for the election or defeat of a particular candidate — but not in cooperation with or at the request of that candidate. Typically, independent expenditure political action committees would not raise money for services such as polling or public relations services, according to campaign finance experts.

Dan Weiner of New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice said promoting non-candidates and paying for services like public relations is atypical of independent expenditure political action committees.

“I would say that is quite unusual,” Weiner said. “Bottom line, it is deeply troubling that a PAC would be funneling unlimited money for sitting office-holders, regardless of whether or not they are on the ballot. That raises quite obvious concerns.”

Weiner said political action committees funding politicians not on the ballot -—or services for them — should raise questions about the possibility of political favors being returned in exchange for that help.

Why Mercury, When the Senate Has Its Own Communications Director?

While Mercury’s services have provided public relations support for Carmichael and Blair, the Senate employs its own communications director who works with news media. Jacque Bland currently holds the title of communications director of the Senate, under the supervision of Carmichael in his role as Senate president.

In the position of communications director, Bland works as a liaison between all members of the Senate — regardless of party — and the news media. According to the state auditor’s office, Bland was paid $73,640.01 for her work in 2017.

Asked whether Mercury’s work has affected her job as communications director of the Senate, Bland declined to comment for this story.

Carmichael said the work performed by Mercury — particularly that which is focused on issues related to the teacher strike — is politically motivated and is inherently different than the work Bland does. He said the political messaging should be outsourced to an entity outside the Legislature.

“West Virginia legislative announcements and so forth get published on the Legislature’s website. These recently, on both sides of the aisle, have become very political — they have become too political,” he said.

Carmichael said he has had conversations with Democratic minority leaders Sen. Roman Prezioso and Del. Tim Miley about trying to limit the scope and use of the Legislature’s public information office and get politics out of the equation. Prezioso and Miley confirmed those conversations.

“If it becomes political, you need to use an outside entity to craft that. That message needs to get [put together] outside of here. Jacque does a phenomenal job of getting this messaging — the informational pieces — out to the public. But in terms of it, if it’s going to turn political at all, it needs to be done by a separate political arm outside of this Legislature. And, so, that’s what Mercury’s purpose is,” Carmichael said.

Teacher Strike Still in Focus Ahead of Election with Plans for Additional Raises Announced by Gov. Justice

As the November midterms get closer — and with teachers issues remaining on the minds of voters — Gov. Jim Justice announced this week plans for another 5 percent pay raise for teachers and all other public employees and a promised dedication of $100 million to funding PEIA.

During a news conference Tuesday announcing those plans, Justice touted Republican accomplishments in terms of this past year’s teacher raises and economic growth in general, citing a nearly $120 million budget surplus three months into fiscal year 2019. He also downplayed the role of the unions and the strike.

“Over and over and over, you can say what you want. But, at the end of the day, the teachers’ pay raise last year — the teachers’ pay raise — that all happened not because of people that were ‘rah-rah-ing’ and everything upstairs,” Justice said. “It happened because the good work of the Republicans, the Republicans are the ones that passed it. Your Republican governor is the one came up with the idea of the five percent. Nobody but your Republican governor. The Republican House followed suit.”

Gov. Jim Justice is joined by Republican legislators to announce plans for additional pay raises for public employees in the 2019 legislative session.
Photo: credit office of Gov. Jim Justice.

Justice acknowledged holdouts by Senate Republicans, but also gave credit to the majority caucus in the upper chamber.

“It took a little while to get the Senate on board. But when they came on board, what did they do? They came on board for not only the teachers — they came on board for everybody. Everybody got the five percent,” he said.

In a news release dated Oct. 2 — the same day as Justice’s announcement of plans for another round of raises for state employees — Carmichael released a statement through the Legislature’s public information office. Bland is listed as the contact on the release.

“Thanks to pro-growth policies that have been implemented by the Legislature in recent years, our economy continues to expand, while tax revenue continues to increase, leading to historic budget surpluses,” Carmichael said in the release. “In turn, we are able to use that growth to deliver our teachers the pay increases they need and deserve.”

How much the teacher strike and issues related to public education will impact the 2018 general election remains to be seen.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting

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West Virginia And Kentucky College Students Still Struggle to Pay Back Loans

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Photo: U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Airman 1st Class Trevor Rhynes Student loan default rates are falling nationally but remain high in KY and WV.

New research this month shows that West Virginia and Kentucky have some of the nation’s worst rates of student loan defaults.

West Virginia had the highest and Kentucky the fourth-highest rate of student loan defaults, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Education.

Graphic: Alexandra Kanik

In West Virginia, 17.7 percent of students who entered loan repayment in 2015 had defaulted three years later. New Mexico and Nevada were second and third, and Kentucky came in fourth, with 14.3 percent of students unable to pay back their loans. At 12.2 percent, Ohio ranked near the middle, tying Michigan for 14th place.

The rates refer to the total number of people who took out loans and the percentage of that number who missed nine consecutive student loan payments.

Economists in West Virginia and Kentucky say the high default rates reflect the rising costs for college, stagnant wages for many entering the workforce, and budget cuts that target higher education.

Costs Up, Wages Flat

Ashley Spalding, a senior policy analyst at the left-leaning Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, said the cost of college is rising but wages are not keeping pace.

Student loan default rates are falling nationally but remain high in KY and WV. Photo: U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Airman 1st Class Trevor Rhynes

“When you really look at what’s happening with Kentucky, we have a lot of people living in poverty, having trouble making ends meet,” Spalding said. “We’ve seen tuition just skyrocket in recent years, but wages aren’t really going up for most people.”

Sean O’Leary, a senior policy analyst at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, said a decade of tax and budget cuts had resulted in less funding for higher education.

“We’ve seen that the biggest part of our discretionary budget is higher education,” O’Leary said. “So when we have budget shortfalls and we need to cut the budget, higher education is the first part of the budget that goes under the budget knife.”

Rural Challenge

Schools with the highest default rates tended to be for-profit schools and community colleges; at Kentucky’s worst-performing school, Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, nearly a third of borrowers couldn’t pay back their loans.

Spalding said it wasn’t surprising that the state’s worst-performing school was in rural eastern Kentucky. “Where people live in Kentucky affects their access to jobs,” she said. “Our rural areas are more economically challenged right now.”

Graphic: Alexandra Kanik

Separate research from the Federal Reserve Board has shown that student loan debt makes it less likely for borrowers to become homeowners, an important way that Americans build wealth.

According to the Department of Education, the national average for student loan default stood at 10.8 percent, down from 11.5 percent last year. The national default rate has been trending down since 2010, when it peaked at 14.7 percent.

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley Resource

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