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Former Comar executive Bowling pleads guilty

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Former Cross Lanes computer executive Martin R. Bowling admitted Tuesday that he took part in a scheme to divert federal grant money that he ultimately received as an employee bonus.

Bowling, 30, faces a minimum of two years in federal prison or a maximum four-year term. He's scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 3.

Bowling, who pleaded guilty Tuesday, is cooperating with federal and state authorities investigating the misuse of a $100,000 technology-training grant awarded by the state Workforce West Virginia office last year to Comar Inc., an Internet marketing and publishing firm in Cross Lanes.

"Mr. Bowling has accepted responsibility for his actions," said Mark French, a lawyer with Criswell & French law firm who represents Bowling. "He wants to pay his debt to society and is cooperating with all law enforcement officials to achieve that goal."

Bowling, former chief technical officer at Comar, told a judge Tuesday that he and others falsified documents to pay his girlfriend at the time, Mandi Felty, $5,000 as a "personal adviser" on the grant.

But Felty performed no work, and Bowling received the $5,000 as a bonus for helping Comar secure the $100,000 grant, Bowling said Tuesday. Bowling and Felty have since married.

"I was paid a $5,000 bonus through which I helped create documents so that it could be paid through the grant," Bowling told U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver, who asked Bowling to explain his crime.

At the time, Bowling's mother, Mary Jane Bowling, distributed the $100,000 grant while working as a state Workforce West Virginia administrator. Mary Jane Bowling has since resigned amid the scandal.

Martin Bowling's godmother, Christine Gardner, also received $5,000 from the grant for consulting work.

Gardner and Felty purported to provide a "needs assessment" study after Comar was awarded the grant, according to Bowling's plea agreement. The Gazette has previously reported that Gardner helped write Comar's grant application.

Comar publishes MetroValley magazine.

The FBI and state Legislature's Commission on Special Investigations continue to look into the grant misappropriation. A federal grand jury is hearing testimony in the case. The grand jury next meets Sept. 14.

Also Tuesday, Bowling admitted he stole people's credit card numbers in 2006 and used them to purchase artwork and other merchandise on the Internet. Bowling was working for Parkersburg-based Woodcraft Magazine at the time.

"I knowingly used the credit cards without authorization to make those purchases," Bowling told Copenhaver.

The charge holds a mandatory two-year prison sentence. Federal prosecutors had to get a special waiver to prosecute Bowling on a charge he previously was convicted of in Kanawha County Circuit Court.

Bowling was convicted on similar charges in Kanawha Circuit Court last March. Bowling has agreed to pay $4,495 in restitution to the credit cardholders.

Kanawha Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey sentenced Bowling to three years in prison, but later reduced the sentence to a year of home confinement and five years of probation. Bowling was released from prison after his friends and family wrote letters to Bailey and packed a Kanawha County courtroom to show their support.

During the March hearing, Bowling choked back tears and told Bailey, "With a second chance, I will never appear before this court or any other court. I've let so many people down. It's not who I am. I'm not that person."

Bowling's wife and two of his friends sat through Tuesday's plea hearing at the Robert C. Byrd U.S. Courthouse in Charleston. His mother and godmother did not attend.

Wearing his trademark black-rimmed designer eyeglasses, Bowling appeared poised and answered Copenhaver's questions without hesitation. He was released on $10,000 bond.

Bowling told the judge he was now self-employed, working for a company called 27 Creative.

As a condition of his release before sentencing, Bowling was ordered to abstain from drinking alcohol beverages. Copenhaver noted that Bowling been charged with driving under the influence on several occasions since 2004.

Bowling told the judge he hasn't taken a drink for the past six months.

"I currently do not use alcohol," said Bowling, a craft-beer aficionado who has a dog named Brewski.

Bowling was nationally known for his expertise in Internet marketing and Web site development. He also specialized in "on-line reputation management," which helps companies and individuals push positive information about themselves to the top of a page following a Web search.

Bowling also developed a popular Web site called Zi.ma, which shortens Web address links or URLs. He frequently spoke about his work at national conferences.

He has more than 1,600 followers on Twitter.com, a social networking site.

After the hearing, Bowling left through the back door of the federal courthouse and could not be reached for comment.

He posted this on Twitter an hour after Tuesday's proceedings: "Court went as well as one could expect. Now time for noms [eating]. I'm starving."

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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