Goodwin resigning from office; clearing way for governor's run

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Goodwin resigning from office; clearing way for governor's run
By David Gutman, The Charleston Gazette-Mail

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin is resigning from office, less than a month after completing one of the highest-profile criminal cases in West Virginia history, and paving the way for a widely anticipated run for governor.

Goodwin announced his resignation Monday afternoon after a meeting with his staff. The resignation is effective at the end of 2015. An announcement from Goodwin’s office said he is returning to private law practice.

While he made no announcement about his political future, Goodwin has been considering a run for governor for months.

“I’m not prepared to say at this point,” Goodwin said Monday, when asked about a possible run for governor.

A campaign announcement could come as early as next week.

Goodwin had to step down as a federal prosecutor before he could begin any campaign activity, including fundraising.

He has been a federal prosecutor since 2001 and has been one of West Virginia’s two U.S. attorneys since 2010. He was appointed by President Barack Obama (a potential political liability that the state Republican Party has already begun to exploit) and was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Carol Casto, who has been first assistant U.S. attorney during Goodwin’s tenure, will take over as acting U.S. attorney, Goodwin said.

A new, permanent U.S. attorney will require recommendations from West Virginia’s U.S. senators, a presidential appointment and Senate confirmation.

“It has been the greatest honor of my life to serve as United States Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia,” Goodwin said in a prepared statement. “The unparalleled success of this office during my tenure is a tribute to, and a result of, the extraordinary dedication of the lawyers, staff and law enforcement personnel with whom I have been privileged to serve.”

“I think we’ve made some incredible progress, and I want to leave on that high note,” Goodwin added in a brief phone interview.

A little more than three weeks ago, Goodwin’s office completed a more than five-year investigation, when a federal jury found former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship guilty of a misdemeanor charge of conspiring to violate mine safety laws.

While the victory represented the first conviction of a major CEO for workplace safety violations, it was not a total victory for the prosecution.

Blankenship, who was investigated in the wake of Massey’s 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine disaster that killed 29 men, was acquitted of three felony charges that would have carried up to 30 years in prison.

Goodwin called the prosecution “a landmark day for the safety of coal miners.”

Blankenship and his lawyers long maintained that the case was political. Blankenship, for much of this century, has been the pre-eminent donor in West Virginia Republican politics.

Goodwin comes from a storied Democratic family — his father is a federal judge and former state party chairman; his mother is a Cabinet secretary for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin; his cousin is a former U.S. senator; and his wife is the state’s tourism commissioner and a former spokeswoman for Tomblin and former Gov. Bob Wise.

Scott Crichlow, chairman of the political science department at West Virginia University, said the Blankenship conviction strengthens Goodwin’s position, should he run for governor, although it may not change that many minds either way.

“Many people who won’t back Goodwin and already seemed to side with Blankenship probably already viewed the prosecution, at least in part, politically motivated, given that it was an appointee of a Democratic administration prosecuting a major Republican donor,” Crichlow said. “Those happy about Blankenship’s conviction may be inclined to back a Goodwin bid.”

If he does run for governor, Goodwin would be the third major Democrat in the primary. Already running are coal and timber magnate Jim Justice, owner of The Greenbrier resort and a former friend of Blankenship, and state Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, of Marshall County. Four Republicans, including state Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer, also have said they’re running for governor.

The Blankenship prosecution is not the only high-profile case Goodwin could mine for potential campaign material. Blankenship’s is the capstone of convictions related to the UBB disaster, but four other men involved with Massey or the mine also pleaded guilty or were convicted by Goodwin’s office.

Earlier this month, Goodwin’s office sent out a news release touting the more than $11 million it has collected for taxpayers in fines and asset forfeitures this year, an amount it said was more than double its annual direct budget.

Goodwin’s investigation into the Freedom Industries chemical leak that poisoned the water of 300,000 Kanawha Valley residents in January 2014 led to guilty pleas from six company executives and the company itself.

Goodwin’s resignation announcement cited, by name, two of those executives — Dennis Farrell and Gary Southern — but did not name Blankenship.

Every major Freedom Industries executive pleaded guilty, but the company’s owner, J. Clifford Forrest, who had bought Freedom just a month before the leak, escaped prosecution.

Goodwin also has made fighting the opioid epidemic a focal point of his time in office. The news release announcing his resignation said Goodwin’s office has “prosecuted hundreds of pill and heroin dealers, shuttered pill mills, and convicted doctors and pharmacists who dishonored their professions by promoting the opiate abuse scourge.”

Goodwin also has taken unusual steps for a prosecutor to tackle the problem. Two years ago, his office partnered with the Huntington Police Department to produce a documentary-style video on the dangers of prescription drug abuse.

Last month, four men, dressed in red head-to-toe body suits, strolled along the streets of Huntington and Charleston, offering no explanation for their outfits, other than to say they wanted to “raise awareness.”

Three weeks later, Goodwin explained that the men represented red dots, peppering the map of West Virginia, each indicating an overdose in the state that leads the nation in drug deaths. The men in red, all recovering addicts, and the subsequent announcement were to promote a new website that helps match addicts with available treatment resources.

“The largest crime problem in this district continues to center around opiate abuse,” Goodwin wrote in a letter to community leaders, last July.

In 2013 and 2014, Goodwin’s office also successfully prosecuted a corruption scandal that touched nearly every part of Mingo County government.

The county’s lone judge, its lead prosecutor, a magistrate and a county commissioner — all Democrats — pleaded guilty to various federal charges after indictments brought by Goodwin’s office.