Memo: Wyoming County town is focus of state ethics investigation
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The West Virginia Ethics Commission is investigating several members of the Oceana town government, amid allegations of misspent funds and favoritism, according to residents and an internal memo from the town's lawyer.
Oceana City Councilman Don Morgan filed 14 complaints with the Ethics Commission, accusing Mayor John Roach, fellow Councilmen Bryant Whisenant and Mike Fleshman and three city employees of wrongdoing.
The complaints focus on Kenneth Graham, who works for the town as a mechanic. Morgan and 2012 mayoral candidate Jeff Laxton say Graham improperly spent $97,000 of town money on auto parts over a two-year period.
They allege that Graham spent the money at the local affiliate of Napa Auto Parts and then used what he purchased to run a private repair shop out of his home on Tyler Street, a residential area.
Morgan said the Ethics Commission found 18 invoices for parts that couldn't be used on any vehicle owned by the town.
Laxton said Graham has been running the garage for more than 10 years with the tacit permission of town officials.
"They're trying to protect this guy," Laxton said. "They're willing to go to jail for this guy."
Neither Roach nor Graham returned repeated requests for comment. Calls to Oceana City Hall went unanswered this week.
Whisenant said he was unaware of any investigation.
The Ethics Commission would neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation, but an internal memo from Lela Walker, attorney for the town, seems to implicitly confirm that an investigation is taking place.
The memo, dated May 19 and addressed to the mayor, City Council and town recorder, also advises city officials not to speak about the investigation.
"I understand that the Charleston Gazette has been calling City Hall asking for comments about certain matters being investigated," Walker wrote. "It is my advice to everyone that the answer 'no comment' should be given."
Morgan also alleges that the town treasurer, under direction from the mayor, gave cash advances and made loan payments for town employees, including maintenance supervisor Tim Carver.
Walker's memo confirms these allegations.
"The payroll advances to Tim Carver and to Avery Toler were not appropriate. Also payroll advances to pay loans on behalf of employees to a lender, such as First Century Bank on behalf of Tim Carver, are not appropriate," Walker wrote.
Morgan alleges a pattern of vindictive and selective enforcement of town rules and ordinances by town officials.
He mentioned, specifically, a recent dispute over sewer fees. In that case, resident Joan Webster complained that the town was improperly ordering her to connect her property to the town's sewage system, and at her expense.
The town argued that since her property was next to town sewage lines, the government could force her to connect, as stipulated in state code.
However, the state Public Service Commission ruled in April that the town had made an unreasonable request. The commission wrote that the "property has a working sewer system that has not generated any complaints to the local health department."
The commission found that the town was asking Webster to install 375 feet of pipe at an estimated cost of $20,000.
In ruling against the town, commissioners cited state code, reading, "Public utilities in this state are prohibited from unjust, unreasonable, insufficient or discriminatory acts or practices."
In her memo, town attorney Walker also wrote about seeing a large group of town employees idling around outside City Hall during the middle of the day.
"There appears to be no one there to tell them what to do or to tell them to work," Walker wrote. "Perhaps they had a legitimate reason to be standing there. However, it seems strange to me that our employees are standing holding the wall up at City Hall when private citizens are in the park constructing playground equipment."
Reach David Gutman at email@example.com or 304-348-5119.