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Smithers fire chief under investigation

SMITHERS, W.Va. -- State Police are investigating Smithers Fire Chief Tim Whittington for possible misuse of public funds.

Sgt. K.E. Tawes of the Gauley Bridge detachment of the West Virginia State Police confirmed this week that troopers were asked by Fayette County authorities to investigate Whittington, chief of the Smithers Volunteer Fire Department.

Fayette County prosecutor Carl Harris said the investigation was started after allegations were made that Whittington might have used a government-issued credit card for personal use. Harris said he could not discuss details of the case.

Whittington could not be reached for comment Thursday. The telephone number listed for the Smithers Volunteer Fire Department is not in service, and the station's Internet website has been disabled. He also did not answer calls to his cellphone.

Smithers Town Council members recently voted to cut ties between the fire department and the city. "I don't have anything to do with them," said Smithers Mayor Thomas Skaggs. "They govern themselves and they're under county funds."

Kanawha County commissioners voted earlier this month to withhold $10,000 in funding to the Smithers Volunteer Fire Department until fire officials provide federal Form 990 tax documents for the fire department. Although Smithers is in Fayette County, the department answers calls across the county line in Kanawha County and receives some funding from Kanawha County.

The state cut off money to the Smithers VFD in July 2011 because fire officials were not in compliance with the rules for spending a state grant, according to Stacy Sneed, director of the Post Audit Division of the West Virginia Legislature. The division is sometimes called in to review the expenditures of state money by local agencies to make sure the money has been spent appropriately.

Sneed confirmed Thursday that state auditors are conducting a post audit of the Smithers fire department's books, but said fire officials have provided only some of the information auditors requested.

"We've continued to cut them off because we still haven't received documentation," she said.

James Bowles, a former captain at the Smithers fire department, was suspended in September 2011 and fired in November after raising questions about the department's finances, he said. Bowles said he first noticed unpaid utility bills for the department in the spring of 2011, but said firefighters couldn't get the chief to open the books or provide details about the department's finances.

Bowles said Whittington told other firefighters in the department during the summer of 2011 that he had accidentally paid one of his personal bills using fire department funds, but had paid the money back. "He told us he only paid one bill," Bowles said. "So I started to look into it."

Bowles said he was suspended not long afterward. He thinks Whittington may have spent thousands of dollars in government funds for personal gain.

Sneed said results of the state's audit of the fire department would not be public until auditors make their final report.

Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215.


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