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Plants conducting criminal investigation of Chesapeake VFD

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Kanawha County prosecutor Mark Plants is conducting a criminal investigation of the Chesapeake Volunteer Fire Department.

"The investigation is involving allegations of misappropriation of public money," Plants said.

Chesapeake Fire Chief P.J. Johnson would not comment Tuesday.

In January, the West Virginia Legislature cut off all funding to the department because fire officials refused to turn over financial records for a state audit, despite repeated requests for the information. Records at the state Auditor's Office show that the Chesapeake department received about $9,500 in taxpayer money in 2012.

In a legislative audit report issued earlier this month, state auditors said they could not get enough information from Chesapeake fire officials to complete their audit. "On Jan. 2, 2013 . . . the Legislative Auditor determined the Volunteer Fire Department was not cooperating and notified the State Treasurer to withhold payment of any amount that would otherwise be distributed to the fire department," the audit concluded.

In September, the Kanawha County Commission cut off $20,000 in annual funding to the department for failure to provide federal 990 tax forms that county officials now require. Chesapeake fire officials have since provided the documents.

However, C.W. Sigman, Kanawha County deputy emergency services director, said Chesapeake still has not turned over complete financial information about the department's nonprofit and for-profit business dealings to comply with a county-ordered audit.

Kanawha County Commissioner Dave Hardy asked for an audit of the department in December 2011 after questioning the roles and relationships between the nonprofit fire department and a business the department runs selling radio equipment. Hardy also questioned bookkeeping practices for bingo and raffle games the department runs as fundraisers.

The County Commission paid $18,000 for an independent audit of the department, but auditors also found fire officials uncooperative and reluctant to provide financial information. Hardy and Johnson got into a shouting match over the department's records at a commission meeting in August.

"Are you saying I'm a liar?" Johnson asked after Hardy repeatedly accused Chesapeake of not cooperating with county auditors.

"You can draw any inference you want," Hardy shot back.

Sigman said he believes county auditors are still waiting for financial information from Chesapeake.

At the time, Chesapeake fire officials said they couldn't turn over some of the financial information the county requested because the records were in the hands of the state auditors. However, the legislative audit report sent out Feb. 6 casts doubt on that assertion.

"We mailed multiple certified and noncertified letters, as well as made attempts to contact the [fire] department by phone to obtain bank statements and supporting documentation for its state account," Legislative Post Audit Division Director Stacy Sneed wrote in the state audit report. "However, the department has not provided the documentation we requested."

Kanawha County Manager Jennifer Sayre said county officials have turned over to the prosecutor's office what financial records they do have on the fire department.

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


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