Charleston, W.Va. (AP) – A West Virginia reporter lost her job last month after reporting about alleged mistreatment of people with disabilities within the state agency that runs West Virginia’s foster care and psychiatric facilities.

Amelia Farrell Knowsley, a reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting, said she was asked to stop reporting on the Department of Health and Human Resources after agency leaders “threatened to discredit” the publicly funded television and radio network Was. She later learned that her part-time position was being terminated.

In a statement, Nisley said his news director told him the order came from WVPB executive director Butch Antolini, former communications director for Republican Gov. Jim Justice. Antolini has served as executive director through 2021, when his predecessor was ousted after Justice overhauled the agency’s governing board.

Justice had tried unsuccessfully to end state funding for the WVPB in the past and had accused of hiring partisan operatives on the board. WVPB receives approximately $4 million per year in state funding.

Antolini declined to comment, but other officials denied any attempt to influence the coverage. West Virginia Educational Broadcasting Authority President William H. File III said Antolini told the board “he was not coerced or pressured by anyone.”

File said in a statement that Knighley was never fired and remains on the WVPB payroll, though it said her door key and email had been disabled.

Neasley’s departure comes during a tumultuous time for West Virginia media. Days before leaving WVPB, three reporters for the Pulitzer Prize-winning Charleston Gazette-Mail said they were fired after publicly criticizing an editorial decision by Doug Skaff, the president of his company, who is the minority leader in the state House of Representatives. Skaff approved and led a video interview with Don Blankenship, a coal company executive convicted of safety violations linked to one of the worst coal mining disasters in recent US history.

The departure leaves a reduced Capitol press corps to cover the upcoming legislative session that begins Jan. 11.

Nicely’s stories detail the alleged mistreatment of people with disabilities under the care of the state. The department provides care for some of the most vulnerable residents of some of the poorest US states.

Knisely’s departure from WVPB was first reported by Parkersburg News and Sentinel Last week, Republican Senate President Craig Blair and Democratic Party Chairman Mike Pushkin both called the circumstances surrounding his departure “troubling.”

Pushkin said that Nicelli’s coverage of “the glaring issues in the DHHR” was “detailed, in-depth, and most importantly truthful.”

“There is a very clear difference between not liking media reports and actively working to silence them,” Blair wrote on Twitter on 29 December.

Knisely was hired as a part-time reporter at WVPB in September. In November, she copied an email from then-DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch, alleging inaccuracy in a story and asking for a “full retraction”.

This never happened, but in early December, Knisely said she was told by WVPB news director Eric Douglas that she could no longer cover DHHR because of state officials threatening to discredit WVPB.

A week later, amid mounting criticism, Crouch announced he was resigning.

Douglas confirmed to The Associated Press that he was instructed to tell Nissley that she would no longer report on DHHR, and that Antolini instructed her to do so.

Regarding threats from DHHR officials about discrediting the WVPB, he said: “I will not comment on that.”

On December 15, Nicely filed a human resources complaint regarding interference in his reporting.

Things came to a head later that same day over Nissley’s press credentials for the 2023 legislative session, according to emails obtained by the AP and first reported Parkersburg News and Sentinel,

Douglas initially informed legislative staff that Knisely would “play a significant role” in WVPB’s 2023 legislative coverage. But then the station’s chief operating officer dropped her an email saying she wouldn’t need credentials.

This bothered Senate spokesman Jack Bland, who emailed Douglas to ask about it.

“It seems kind of sleazy and shady to me that someone else would dive in and say that one of your reporters would have no assignments related to the session,” she wrote.

She said: “I certainly wanted you to be aware that Butch and friends were trying to get their fingers in the pie.”

Responding the next day, Douglas said that he had been pulled into Antolini’s office and told that “things have changed with Amelia.” He said he did not appreciate the WVPB leadership going behind his back, “but for now it’s out of my hands.”

“And you’re right, it sounds gross and shady,” he wrote.

Nisley said he was informed on December 20 that the part-time positions were being eliminated. Her email and key cards were deactivated around that time.

This week, Knisely announced on Twitter that he had been hired by The Register-Herald, a Beckley-based newspaper, to report on West Virginia’s upcoming legislative session. He said his coverage would include developments in the state health and human resource departments.

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