WVU paid more than $230K for Coben to fly on private jet to Charleston for governor-appointed job

He often used the plane to travel from his home in Washington County, Pa., to Charleston to perform his duties as interim secretary for the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources.

By: - January 4, 2024 10:55 am

Dr. Jeff Coben, a faculty member at West Virginia University, previously served as interim secretary for the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources. (West Virginia University photo)

West Virginia University paid more than $230,000 for employee Jeff Coben to fly on a private plane to Charleston and work for the governor’s administration. University leaders, grappling with a budget shortfall, said the pay out was justified as they’re fulfilling a “land grant mission” to serve the state.

Earlier this year, Coben, who is a doctor, served as interim secretary for the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources.

Public flight records obtained using the Freedom of Information of Act detailed how Coben regularly used WVU’s chartered jet for reasons that included meeting with Governor Jim Justice, state health department leaders and lawmakers. Additional thousands of dollars were spent on flights where Coben joined others during his government work.

He often used the plane to travel from his home in Washington County, Pennsylvania, to Charleston to perform his duties as secretary. His name was listed on private jet itineraries that included the Washington County Airport, which totaled more than $76,000 from December 2022 through June 21, 2023. Washington County is approximately a three-hour drive from Charleston.

“WVU is a state agency, our employees are state employees. When another state entity calls on us for help, we do what we can to answer the call to fulfill our land-grant mission,” WVU Communications Director April Kaull said in an email.

Last December, as controversy was swirling around DHHR, Justice named Coben as interim DHHR secretary. Seven days later, Coben used the jet, paid for by WVU, to travel from Washington County to Charleston “to meet with Gov. Justice as well as with all DHHR departments across the state to further implementation of various duties during transition of interim Secretary for DHHR,” according to the flight reservation.

The trip cost $7,030.58, according to records.

Another trip on Jan. 20, where Coben flew from Pittsburgh — near his hometown — to Charleston cost $9,737.16.

Coben is still employed at WVU and did not respond to an interview request made through the university’s communications office.

WVU leaders, facing a $45 million deficit this year, made swift cuts around on its Morgantown campus in an effort to right the budget and create a “modern-day” university. The university has eliminated hundreds of jobs and slashed 28 academic programs. Amid the budget crunch, the university library system previously suspended purchases of new educational materials, including books.

Meanwhile, the Charleston Gazette Mail reported that while WVU leaders were addressing the budget shortfall, university payments to an aviation company for air travel have risen.

“I’m surprised and kind of disappointed that’s how they chose to spend money while we are scrutinized for every penny we spent,” said Christiaan Abildso, 47, a faculty member who was told his contract wouldn’t be renewed after next May as part of the university’s Reduction in Force.

Abildso teaches in the Department of Social and Behavioral Health Sciences, which was previously under Coben’s leadership while he served as dean of university’s School of Public Health.

WVU also paid for employee Dr. Clay Marsh, who served as the state coronavirus czar, to use the chartered jet for his state government work. A flight record showed Marsh flew to Charleston on Sept. 20 to participate in the governor’s press briefing at the cost of $11,446.97.

In an email, Kaull said that the flights “were funded through WVU royalty and trademark licensing fees collected by the University.”

“No state appropriations or student tuition or fees are used,” she continued.

DHHR’s communications department did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story, including a question about whether the department had an agreement with WVU to pay for Coben’s air travel.

Coben steps down as dean, will remain on faculty

WVU has paid around $12.3 million to the company, L.J. Aviation, a Pennsylvania-based company, for chartering a private aircraft since July 2014, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Flight records showed university President E. Gordon Gee regularly flew from Morgantown to Charleston instead of making the two-and-half hour drive.

Austin Siford, who lives in Jefferson County, became curious about when and how university leaders were using private jets amid the budget issues. He obtained years of flight records from the State Auditor’s Office, then verified the authenticity of the amount WVU spent through the auditor’s state payment database. He compiled WVU’s flight records into an online database.

“I had questions about WVU’s usage of private charter flights,” he said. “I compiled and published this data because nobody else was going to.”

Records obtained by Siford showed an expensive trip where Coben joined Gee, Senate President Craig Blair and other state leaders “to promote West Virginia through investments and ideas to improve and enhance state education outcomes.” The trip, which included flying to Seattle, Washington,cost $69,327.

Siford noted that the cost of the flight was greater than the median household income in the state.

Coben wrapped up his work as interim DHHR secretary in July as the department hired secretaries for its three new departments. Justice said Coben’s leaving was a “planned departure.”

In October, Coben’s name showed up in court filings in an ongoing lawsuit against DHHR. The class-action lawsuit, filed in 2019, said that the department failed to properly care for thousands of foster kids.

Attorneys for the children revealed in October that DHHR failed to save emails from top former officials, including Coben and leaders who predated him. The attorneys are pursuing sanctions against DHHR over the missing evidence, while the state has blamed the Office of Technology for the fiasco.

Coben stepped down from his role of dean of the School of Public Health in November, according to a university press release. He will remain on faculty with the Schools of Public Health and Medicine, according to a university press release.

He will also continue to support the operations of the Health Affairs Institute in his role as associate vice president.

“Dr. Coben has been very involved with the administration of the Health Sciences Center since his appointment as an associate vice president in 2015,” Kaull said. “When he returned to the university, he decided he wanted to devote his attention there and to his associated leadership and faculty position responsibilities.”

The Health Affairs Institute, housed at WVU, focused on improving health outcomes in Appalachia through research and strategy. Coben launched the institute in 2017 through a partnership with DHHR.

The institute received state funding this year, including $16.9 million from DHHR to complete contracted work, according to Kaull. She said Summer Hartley assumed the role of associate vice president at the institute once Coben began his role as interim secretary for DHHR.

“Hartley was responsible for all strategy, finance and operations during that time period,” Kaull said.

Financial reviews continue at WVU’s Beckley and Keyser campuses. WVU recently announced 16 job cuts in its libraries.

“The restructuring will result in an estimated $790,000 in personnel savings,” according to the university.

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