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FLASHING BLUE LIGHTS REFLECT A BOILING FEUD WITHIN DOE


Publication: THE CHARLESTON GAZETTE
Published: Sunday, October 07, 1990
Page: P1A
Byline: PAUL NYDEN

WILLIAM ''BOLTS'' WILLIS WANTS TO INSTALL FLASHING BLUE LIGHTS, a siren and a state police radio in a Division of Energy vehicle for his own use. Energy Commissioner Larry George has not approved the.

request. Willis apparently wants the lights and siren in case he has to drive to a mine disaster.

Flashing blue lights reflect a larger feud boiling up rapidly.

George and Willis, who is George's administrative assistant, have been attacking each other privately for more than a week.

George believes Willis is trying to torpedo his recent administrative reforms. Willis apparently sees those reforms as a threat to his own turf within the agency.

Willis said Tuesday that he has no problems with George. "We have been friends too long to let anything like this happen," he said. Willis failed to return several telephone calls on Thursday and Friday.

Behind the scenes, Willis has been lining up support for more than a week from the governor's office. He has been calling his political allies in the United Mine Workers.

Several local UMW officials criticize Willis, but they are afraid to do so publicly. His critics say Willis has done little in his state job since he became DOE's No. 2 man in January 1989.

Despite that, International UMW officials have apparently decided to fight hard to keep Willis at DOE. Joe Main, who heads the International UMW's safety department, said on Thursday that International union officials would have no comment on the dispute. Main also said he did not want the dispute publicized in the media.

Environmental groups and most UMW officials in West Virginia support George. They regard him as more sensitive to environmental issues and union safety concerns than either George E. Dials or Kenneth R. Faerber, George's two predecessors.

Willis began criticizing George last month after he eliminated four regional administrators in Logan, Welch, Fairmont and Oak Hill, replacing them with a central Office of Administrative Services.

Last week, George opened a new Office of Environmental Enforcement In a Sept. 26 memorandum, George said the reorganization is designed "to eliminate differences among the regions in permitting and enforcement policies and technical standards for both environmental and mine safety programs." In mid-August, Willis and four other DOE officials advised against the reorganization.

George became commissioner on June 7, after Gov. Gaston Caperton named him to replace Dials, who resigned under widespread public criticism. Dials is now president of Massey Coal Services, a subsidiary of A.T. Massey Coal Co.

Willis publicly supported Dials throughout the 16 months he was commissioner. On at least two occasions in 1989, Willis tried to stop the publication of newspaper articles about Dials's financial problems and about his policies as commissioner.

Willis, who makes $62,000 a year, was a UMW safety official before Caperton named him to DOE's second-highest post. Caperton apparently made the appointment to repay the UMW for supporting him during his primary and general election campaigns in 1988.

The conflict between George and Willis escalated quickly. Early last week, George met with Caperton and other administration officials to discuss his concerns that Willis is not a competent administrator.

George has repeatedly said he hopes to make DOE into a professional enforcement agency which is not influenced by politics Willis is getting strong backing from top union officials. On Wednesday, UMW Vice President Cecil Roberts called Caperton to express support for Willis. On Thursday, UMW President Richard Trumka called Caperton to support him.

The governor's office declined to comment.

Willis says his primary area of interest at DOE is mine safety But in one publicized safety battle last year, Willis sided with Dials and the coal industry against the union. Willis and Dials backed an emergency regulation to allow surface mine operators to move high-voltage couplers and connection boxes without first switching off the power. The regulation died in August 1989, when Secretary of State Ken Hechler backed the UMW's position and killed it.

Last month, Willis traveled to Miami Beach to attend the UMW convention at the Fontainebleau Hilton. Willis made the trip, despite George's reported objection, at state expense and said he was representing Caperton. Willis said he spoke to 120 local union presidents at the Fountainebleau.

Willis now wants to attend a mine safety convention in Las Vegas..

George has not approved his request to travel to the Nevada resort

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