West Virginia Wild Card
A whiff of scandal has Alan Mollohan in the GOP's sights
WHEELING, W.VA.--Rep. Alan Mollohan is a hero to many here. Over his 24-year congressional career, Mollohan has brought back millions in federal dollars to fund high-tech projects and job creation in this poor coal and steel district in the northwestern part of the state.
But a new controversy surrounding just those kinds of projects may make this election one of the toughest of his career. The FBI is looking into allegations that he gave millions in earmarks to groups staffed by his friends and business partners, while his personal wealth soared. Mollohan, 63, has not been charged and has denied any wrongdoing. But Republicans are emboldened by the controversy and now believe Mollohan may be vulnerable. It's far from certain, though, whether the GOP's allegations of corruption will have much sway over voters.
That's because "Alan brings home the bacon," says John Saunders, 56, a Democrat and union liaison with the Wheeling Pittsburgh Steel Corp., who is still supportive of Mollohan. "You call it pork," says Saunders from his sixth-floor office on Market Street, "but people here love him because he brings in dollars for water, sewers, and highways."
High-tech corridor. Mollohan--the son of a longtime congressman--has used his seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee to funnel federal dollars to northern West Virginia, especially its budding high-tech corridor connecting Weston and Morgantown along Interstate 79. He set up a network of nonprofit organizations to manage the money. Mollohan proudly says these efforts have helped increase the number of firms in his high-tech business consortium from six to more than 200. In 2004, he won 68 percent of the vote.
But published reports have raised questions about whether earmarks may have been handed out as rewards for campaign donations or lucrative real-estate deals. Media reports have revealed, for example, that Laura Kuhns, the head of the Vandalia Heritage Foundation, one of the nonprofit groups, was also a partner in some of his real-estate investments in North Carolina. Kuhns, a former aide, also donated to Mollohan's campaign. The relationships were first brought to light by the conservative National Legal and Policy Center. The center points out that from 2000 to 2004 Mollohan's personal assets grew from $565,000 to at least $6 million. But no firm connection between the earmarks and Mollohan's wealth has been made.
"The idea that any appropriation went to enhance our personal wealth is flat-out false," says Mollohan. His wealth rose, he says, because of big increases in the value of his real-estate holdings. Mollohan nevertheless stepped down in April as ranking Democrat on the ethics committee.
Shortly before the press first reported the allegations, Will Holley, a former press assistant for President Bush, became the campaign manager for Chris Wakim, Mollohan's opponent. Wakim, a graduate of West Point, was first elected in 2002 to the state House of Delegates, where he was known for advocating tort reform. A former investment banker in Chicago, Wakim owns a local strip mall on Wheeling Island on the Ohio River. Wakim, 48, says his platform will focus on limiting taxes and regulations, overhauling immigration, and fighting the war on terrorism. But his press releases focus hard on Mollohan's problems.
And he's had plenty of help. President George Bush came here in March, followed by House Speaker Dennis Hastert hosting a fundraiser in Parkersburg and Vice President Dick Cheney stumping in Morgantown. Robert Rupp, a political science professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College, says a Wakim victory would have been unthinkable just 60 days ago, before the controversy, but now, "the very fact we are still talking about it shows that it might be a credible race."
Wakim is optimistic, pointing out that President Bush beat both Al Gore and John Kerry statewide. "People in my district are fundamentally social conservatives," says Wakim. "I want to give them a choice." But Mollohan is hardly a liberal; like Wakim, he's pro-gun and anti-abortion. And Mollohan is fighting back. He has already raised $613,000, the most he has ever raised in an election. Wakim has raised $191,000. "I invite him to make the effort to defeat me on the issues," says Mollohan. "The last thing they want to get into is results," he says. In West Virginia, bringing home the bacon still counts for something.
This story appears in the June 5, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.