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WV still getting to know DHHR chief Rocco Fucillo

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West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Rocco Fucillo hasn't said much in the six months since he was appointed to the position.

But that's probably because reporters have been asking him all the wrong things.

Fucillo's name got attached to a few statewide headlines that were not favorable for the department this summer.

Questions about DHHR's advertising contract, three employees connected to that contract put on leave, another questioned contract related to Medicaid services and even Fucillo's travel records shined a spotlight on Fucillo when there wasn't much he could say.

"I'm not the embattled new chief," he said during a Jan. 10 interview from his office at One Davis Square in Charleston. 

"I understand why the media and the public wants to know things — I get that," Fucillo said. "I have to follow the law, and when investigations are ongoing, I can't say things.

"I'm not hiding."

But this attorney from Fairmont became thrust onto the front page as the head of one of West Virginia's biggest agencies, and not many political observers really knew where he came from — literally and figuratively.

Wearing Lots of Hats

To start simply and at the beginning, Fucillo went to Fairmont State University and earned a degree in political science. He graduated from the West Virginia University College of Law in 1987 and spent a year in his own private, solo practice.

"So I understand what it means to make a payroll and all those things that small business men and women go through," he said.

He is the only child of a family he describes as close-knit and traditionally Italian. His father was a 47-year coal miner, and his mother was a cook in the school system. 

He speaks gently, often with a multi-point, multi-colored pen in his hand. 

"They worked very hard to see that I do better than them," Fucillo said of his parents. "Family and children have always been an essential part of my career."

Fucillo moved on to become a guardian ad litem — an attorney appointed by a court to represent abused and neglected children — as the Marion County assistant prosecuting attorney for two years. Then in 1991, he started a firm — Wilson, Fucillo & Shields — in Fairmont with his two best friends. 

Understanding Fucillo's mix of experience — communication skills, analytical skills, private business experience and administrating — explains his journey to DHHR secretary a lot better than just a glance at his resume. 

As a young attorney, he went into homes to remove children who were victims of abuse and neglect. 

"I've seen it first hand," he said. "It's not theoretical for me."

He ran and lost in 1998 and again in 2002 to represent Marion County in the House of Delegates. He said in 1998, he saw a newspaper ad that stood out. He was looking for a career change that would be a little more rewarding and a little less "dollars and cents."

That position put him in the Attorney General's Office as assistant attorney general and regional counsel. 

‘The Job is Everywhere'

The DHHR at that time had recently divided the state into four regions for attorneys to cover, and Fucillo said he was the first regional attorney who was hired under that system. His area covered North Central West Virginia, which stretched across to the Northern Panhandle and dipped down to Wood County. 

He spent the next seven years in that position, always on the road. He worked in each county's office, becoming familiar with judges and prosecutors along with the people he said are the most important — the employees in the offices.

"The most important work is in our county offices," he said. "They save people's lives."

Fucillo, who wears a diamond-encrusted wedding band and gold watch on his left hand and a gold link bracelet on his left, said the worry that keeps him up at night is his concern that everyone in the state — from children to the elderly — is safe.

Fucillo married Andrea Pecora in 2003 in her hometown of Clarksburg, and he became a stepfather to William and Julian Pecora. 

"From my parents to my own family, it's the most important thing," Fucillo said. "And it's a matter of integrity. If I don't help my own family, I wouldn't be an entirely honorable person."

Big Appointments

In 2005, then-Gov. Joe Manchin appointed Fucillo as general counsel to DHHR Secretary Martha Walker. 

Fucillo said he had known Manchin for years and worked on his transition team, serving on a committee for child welfare reform.

"Secretary Walker was incredibly generous and allowed me to commute back and forth," Fucillo said. At that time, Fucillo's parents were in their 80s and he had two elderly aunts for whom he had power of attorney.

He said he was grateful to be able to be there for his own family while advocating for children and families throughout the state by traveling frequently to get the job done.

"Forty-five percent of all children nationwide — and in West Virginia we're pretty close to that number — come from a single-parent household," Fucillo said. 

And he likes the familiarity he's created in each local office.

"I'm in the county offices weekly — it helps keep me real," he said. "If I have a problem, I don't have to go through a lot of layers; I see the clients as they walk in. They're not just statistics to me."

DHHR Director of Communications Marsha Dadisman said DHHR employees have become appreciative "because their cabinet secretary is paying attention."

Taking on Even More

Fucillo is a self-described "workaholic." In 2007, when he was given two positions, he described it as a promotion when most people would call that punishment.

He was named Deputy Secretary of DHHR in addition to his position of general counsel. He continued the regular commuter schedule Walker had authorized.

"No one ever complained about my productivity or my accessibility," Fucillo said.

But his pace stopped Dec. 31, 2009. 

Fucillo's parents and his two aunts all died in 2009. He took time to focus entirely on his family and himself, but he eased back onto the fast track on Feb. 1, 2010, working from Fairmont as assistant general counsel for DHHR. 

And another appointment came his way. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin appointed Fucillo commissioner of the DHHR Bureau for Children and Families on March 1, 2012.

The attention that has come along with Fucillo's most recent appointments came as a surprise.

"I was asked to do both jobs. I didn't ask to be in the limelight," Fucillo said. "The state was in need of someone to quickly come in, twice in four months.

"My parents said, ‘We want you to work hard and have better than us, but if you don't give back everything you have, you're a waste of a person.'"

And although he never set his sights on the secretary position, he surrenders to the higher power of circumstance.

"Serendipity happens sometimes," he said. "My predecessors did a good job, and they did the best they could.

"I walked into a storm."

He calls 2012 an "interesting year," marked by the two opportunities he said happened "out of the blue." 

When he was appointed commissioner of the DHHR Bureau for Children and Families on March 1, Fucillo said he "hit the ground running."

"My first day on the job … I learned we had significant budget issues that could affect child care and social services," he said. "My first day on the job, my first meeting was, ‘Hey, we're short enough money to get out of this fiscal year.'

"I'm proud of the administration's commitment that we avoided any child care cuts or social service cuts."

The second big change that came Fucillo's way arrived even before schedule. Dadisman said it's why DHHR staffers say he "blew in." 

A Stormy Start

Department of Health and Human Resources Cabinet Secretary Dr. Michael Lewis resigned June 30 because of health concerns. 

Fucillo was appointed acting cabinet secretary for DHHR, with a start date of July 1. But Friday, June 29 brought a wind storm that pummeled West Virginia, leaving hundreds of thousands of residents without electricity for weeks.

"It was the only time this year I would play golf," Fucillo reminisced of the day. "I had gotten off the course in Clarksburg, and I was with friends at Applebee's when the power went out."

Fucillo said Jerry Rhodes, director of DHHR's Center for Threat Preparedness, called him. This wasn't even day one of his appointment, it was day negative two.

"Very quickly, it hit me in the eyes what it meant to be secretary," Fucillo said. "We are the guardian of foster children. We have seven facilities, two psychiatric hospitals, the center in Welch and four nursing homes.

"We have the roles of regulator of public health, and I started thinking of our responsibility to senior citizens — this all struck me right away, the responsibility of the things DHHR does that are literally life and death."

Fucillo spent Sunday, July 1, at Nutter Fort Park for his niece's sixth birthday party, but he probably wasn't much company.

He ran a leadership team meeting with his smart phone and a phone list to be sure there were no gaps in services.

"I had 96 conference calls — not just calls, conference calls, with 10, 15, 20 people on them," he said. "The need for me to do my job anywhere is because the job is everywhere."

Shaping the Vision

Fucillo said he saw the resilience of West Virginia along with all the good things his department can do during the storm response.

He is the fourth secretary the department has had since 2009, and he says he wants to bring some stability to DHHR.

He has experience with legislative issues, anything that had to do with county advocacy, and he said he not only learned how programs work, he brought his problem-solving obsession to the table and even helped to draft the code that changed how expert witnesses are paid in child welfare cases. 

"I'm optimistic," he said. "We're creating a modern West Virginia in so many ways, if we can just stop the demographics working against us."

Fucillo said he tries to be very collaborative, but his management style is a proactive and preventive one that comes from a Type-A personality.

"I've always been interested in politics and government, and I'm a problem solver," he said. "I'm obsessive-compulsive about it, and I know I drive my staff crazy, but ‘no' is not an option for me."

Dadisman said they all quickly learned to help find the answers Fucillo is hunting, because he won't just forget or let it go.

"I want to build on those themes, but they're not mutually exclusive," he said. "Everyone's individually responsible for themselves but also for their fellow man, woman and child."

Fucillo called the DHHR's employees its most important resource. Back in March, he said, he started a small monthly recognition program, which is just one piece of the things he wants to do for DHHR employees to thank them for their work.

"He really means it — he is so sincere," Dadisman said of Fucillo's appreciation for the department. "And because he is so real, it means even more to us."

Fucillo said DHHR could leverage all its talents with just a little more team-building. He knows the state has a perpetual shortage of service workers, "for obvious reasons," and he wants to try to fix that while also working within a constrained budget.

"We know these are tough budget times … and it's easy to attack a lot of our programs," Fucillo said. "But DHHR is an untapped engine of economic development in the state." 

When He's Not Working

Fucillo's analytical mind is always working. He calls himself "wonkish" and said he reads studies and reports voraciously — for fun.

He has more than 200 books on his Kindle — mostly history and biography. He roots for the Steelers, the Pirates and the Mountaineers, and he loved the movie "Lincoln."

He rattled off statistics from a study that confirmed that the brains of children who are abused and neglected do not develop normally; a Pew study that found states with strong programs for in-home counseling for first-time parents see 50 percent fewer referrals for state services; and a University of Michigan study that found for every $1 spent on child abuse and neglect prevention services, $8 is returned.

"Every child we can protect from abuse and neglect issues becomes a more productive citizen," he said. "Work force development cannot occur without a healthy work force."

He said he has a mathematical equation that makes up his vision statement, taking into account West Virginia's ranking as the second-oldest state in the nation, the numbers of health issues such as asthma and obesity and even the growing truancy problem and the state's economy.

DHHR contains five bureaus, and employs nearly 6,000 people, operating with a $4 billion budget. Fucillo said it's quite similar to managing a big family, and he knows the department is often the subject of a lot of criticism, but he knows the good it does.

Fucillo said the entire system needs to change to a proactive, collaborative and prevention-based model of services, because this will help to raise a productive, healthy adult who enters the work force.

"If we continue to do what we've always one, we're going to bankrupt the state," Fucillo said.

Managing the Masses

"What people don't understand, they think DHHR only helps certain groups of people," he said. "If you drink water, if you want a birth certificate, a place to get better, from hospitals to nursing homes, protection against disease … if you're concerned about your parents not being abused or exploited, if you care about people becoming economically independent, from cradle to grave, DHHR covers everything and touches every part of life."

Fucillo said he will be looking closely at ways to fix the department's vacancies.

He said the department is running a fine-toothed comb through grant applications now, and just because a grant was given previously doesn't mean it will automatically be given again.

It's among the six points Fucillo has bulleted that he wants the Board of Public Works to look at and tackle collaboratively.

But one of his important tenets for the department is to make sure it's user friendly and every single person is treated with kindness and respect.

For Fucillo, it goes back one more time to how he was raised and his experience of working in the local DHHR county offices — putting family first.