The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Local News

May 25, 2013

Smithers fire chief and wife plead not guilty

Couple's trial has been set for August 20

SMITHERS — After years of speculation and rumor of misspent funds, the former chief of the Smithers Volunteer Fire Department and his wife have been accused of embezzlement and fraud, respectively.

Timothy and Patricia Whittington both pleaded not guilty to the felony charges Friday in Fayette County Circuit Court.

A recently released state audit of the department’s finances for 2010 reports $18,076 in expenditures that either were unallowable under law, lacked supporting documentation, or were unauthorized.

The auditor’s report shows that Whittington was paying some of his personal bills with department funds for over a year, beginning in July 2010. He told the state that the funds were taken by mistake.

Whittington stepped down from his post in February, in consultation with the West Virginia State Police, who handled the case.

He has been replaced by Thomas Whittington, his cousin and a town council member, because he was the only member of the force with the proper certifications, according to Fayette County Fire Coordinator Joe Crist.

The department, which is its own nonprofit corporation, independent of the town’s governance, now has a functioning board of directors made up of members of the community and three members of the fire department, according to Crist.

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In May 2011, a year after the illegal payments began, Whittington contacted the auditor and said he had mistakenly transposed personal and department bank account numbers when using electronic bill pay.

He identified 14 instances in 2010, which total $3,458, and sent along a copy of a cashier’s check for $4,000 that he had deposited into the state account.

The auditors then requested bank statements for 2009 through 2011. Whittington never sent the information, but the West Virginia State Police’s investigating officer, Sgt. K.E. Tawes, provided some of it.

Six additional possible cases of Whittington paying personal bills were identified for 2011, totaling $2,929.

One of these was a $834 payment made in August 2011, three months after Whittington admitted to the auditor that he had been paying his personal bills with department funds. Most were to a company called Nuvell, which deals in auto finance.

In total, 15 checks written to individuals and 18 transactions for utility and phone payments were undocumented or partly documented, according to the audit report. They total $12,696.

Unallowable expenditures for items like food, TV, furniture, and holiday decorations total $2,118. And $3,458 in expenditures was not authorized by the department, the report says.

Whittington served as associate warden of programs at Mt. Olive Correctional Facility during the alleged embezzlement. In May 2011, he was placed on probation for failing to monitor the fire and safety inspector who worked for him.

Then he was suspended for three days in July for unsatisfactory job performance and abusing state work time, according to court documents.

In court Friday, an assistant prosecutor said the amount of stolen money in question for Patricia Whittington was about $6,000. Her connection to the alleged crimes is at this point less clear than her husband’s.

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Former fire captain James Bowles, who worked for the department off and on between 2001 and 2011, calls the indictment “long overdue.” He was fired after raising questions about the chief’s financial practices.

“When I was there, I started to notice that we were getting notices for cutoffs with our utilities and also the chief wouldn’t disclose any of the finances,” he said. “He’d always say, ‘I’ll bring it in next week.’”

Bowles says the chief told firefighters he had made a mistake in paying his bills from the department’s account only after the state informed him of an impending audit.

When he confronted the chief, Bowles says he was told the situation had been “taken care of.” When he confronted the mayor, Tom Skaggs, he says he was told “we (aren’t) going to talk about it.” He also says the mayor refused to audit the accounts.

“The mayor knew about this and could have ordered the police to investigate but he never did,” Bowles alleges. “It wasn’t until after the city took a petition around requesting the prosecuting attorney do an investigation.”

Bowles says he was suspended by the chief in September 2011 for conduct unbecoming of a fire officer, then fired two months later.

He also has questions about thousands of dollars raised by the department’s ladies’ auxiliary group.

He says it was kept in the chief’s office and when he inquired about it, Whittington told him only $300 remained.

The chief had used the rest to pay “everyday expenses” for which he produced no receipts, according to Bowles.

He says his personal character has been defamed during the process of trying to bring the issue to light, and he hopes the auditor’s report has set the record straight.

“I feel like they got what they deserved, and I hope they answer for stealing the taxpayers’ dollars. ... Taking it from a volunteer fire department, of all places, reflects bad on all the fire departments, come time for the fire levy election.”

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The Smithers Volunteer Fire Department has a history of dysfunction, though Crist says they are getting back on their feet.

In November 2012, the department was shut down by the county for lack of vehicle and liability insurance coverage. It reopened two weeks later. It was the second such closure that year. The state fire marshal had cited them for not having the proper training for their officers, among other issues.

At the time of the shutdown, confusion over the status of Whittington’s employment reigned.

He was dismissed by the town in June 2012, but department members countered that their bylaws stated that only their board could take such an action, so he remained in his office.

Both the state and the Kanawha County Commission had suspended payments in support of their operations. Fayette County Fire Levy funds were their only source of funding for basic utility costs.

Crist says the department is in the process of getting other audits done so they can regain funding from the state and potentially Kanawha County.

The department is recruiting new members, fulfilling current members’ training requirements, and getting its finances back in order, says Crist. It meets every Tuesday evening.

Neither the fire department nor the mayor returned phone calls for this story.

The Whittingtons were both released on $5,000 bonds and are set for trial Aug. 20.

— E-mail: cmoore@register-herald.com

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