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Money laundering in dirty industry

Felman Production is one of the few plants in America that produces ferroalloys — amalgamations of iron and other metals — that are essential to the steel-making process. It’s one of those hard, hot and dirty industries that feels like a blast (furnace) from the past, but it is still necessary to having a thriving domestic manufacturing sector.

The plant is located in rural Mason County, West Virginia, along the Ohio River between Parkersburg and Point Pleasant. And, according to federal prosecutors, it is the keystone of an international money laundering scheme emanating from powerful Ukrainian embezzlers.

Because the plant’s owners were trying to squeeze it for value rather than to run a sustainable business, workers were treated as useful but expendable labor parts. The facility accumulated dozens of federal safety violations, several workers were injured and pleas from responsible employees were ignored.

And yet all along, both West Virginia senators — Democrat Joe Manchin and Republican Shelley Moore Capito — and three representatives — Republicans Alex Mooney, David McKinley and Evan Jenkins — signed letters to federal agencies on behalf of Felman Production. The letters aimed to shield Felman from the scrutiny of environmental regulators and to encourage action to protect American-made steel.

While we generally support the latter policy, the legislators chose an awful vehicle for making their case. Besides its long record of safety citations, Felman’s ownership structure, designed to conceal its Ukrainian origins, was so byzantine that federal courts in West Virginia sanctioned the business three times back in 2011 — several years before the legislators vouched for the company.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that members of Congress are happy to vouch for anybody who walks in the door — or, more accurately, pays an expensive lobbyist to walk in the door — promising to create jobs. It doesn’t matter if the jobs are safe, the business sustainable or the owners forthright. If they say the magic word, “jobs,” they attract less scrutiny than a teenage wannabe cadet applying for a nomination to West Point.

We understand the allure and the necessity of jobs, especially in places like rural West Virginia.

But the people of Mason County don’t deserve to be treated as beasts of burden in some oligarch’s money-laundering scheme. The duty of political leaders to the people doesn’t end with merely providing jobs, no matter the cost to workers’ safety and the environment their families share. It must continue to ensuring, as far as possible, that those jobs involve dignified labor as part of a legitimate enterprise that serves the common good.

A cursory investigation of Felman Production would have revealed to Mr. Manchin, Ms. Capito and the others that the company fulfilled none of these basic criteria.

The people of struggling Appalachian communities, in West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and beyond, deserve better from their representatives than to be offered up as cheap labor to whomever comes knocking with deep pockets and big promises. They deserve real economic development strategies, not blind giveaways to unscrupulous businessmen.

* Guest editorial by The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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