A three-year battle between area nonprofits over rightful ownership of the former Mount Hope High School building ended Monday with Mount Hope Heritage and Hope, Inc. (MHHH), regaining ownership of the building, a press release stated.

MHHH filed suit in Fayette County Circuit Court in September 2013 alleging that its ownership of the old school building was fraudulently transferred to another Fayette County nonprofit organization, The Center of Hope Inc.

William “Bill” Sohonage, of Oak Hill, and Lynne Loetterle, of Mount Hope, The Center of Hope Inc., Mount Hope On Trac and the City of Mount Hope were listed as defendants in the suit.

According to the suit, MHHH began plans to acquire the building in Spring 2011 in order to turn in into a youth development center for the community, which coincided with the organization’s mission “to advocate for a viable, cohesive Mount Hope that respects the community’s heritage and works toward a sustainable future.”

The property was acquired from the West Virginia Board of Education by a deed dated June 30, 2011, under the intention that the property would be used for charitable purposes as it was capable of generating a large sum of rental income.

Sohonage, who was at that time serving as vice president of the MHHH board of directors, was responsible for recording the deed, but according to the suit, failed to record it in the county land books.

The following month, MHHH agreed to lease the property to the U.S. Military Joint Task Force for an initial one-year term for the annual rent of $100,000, the suit said.

Months later, after Sohonage “began exercising more and more control,” the suit alleged, Sohonage requested a WVBOE attorney prepare a deed which would transfer the property from the board of education to an entity (Center of Hope) to be organized by Sohonage, the suit claimed.

The attorney, however, told Sohonage the property did not belong to the BOE and the property could not be transferred.

At its February 2012 meeting, “relations between Sohonage and the board reached a breaking point” and the MHHH board cut ties with Sohonage, the suit claimed.

However, after that meeting, Sohonage allegedly drafted a fraudulent deed, identified himself as the president of Center of Hope, and transferred the title from MHHH to Center of Hope, the suit said.

Sohonage then again approached the WVBOE attorney, asking her to review his drafted deed. The attorney reviewed the draft and returned the deed, the suit said.

Sohonage officially organized The Center of Hope Inc., on Feb. 1, 2012, and he and another defendant, Loetterle, recorded the June 2011 deed (which transferred the property from the BOE to MHHH), then recorded the fraudulent deed, transferring the property from MHHH to Center of Hope, according to the lawsuit.

When the MHHH board learned about the fraudulent transfer, they acted immediately to remove Sohonage from the board and revoke his access to the bank account funds, the suit said.

After taking the title to the property, the suit said Sohonage negotiated a new lease between the U.S. Military Joint Task Force and the Center of Hope. The new lease doubled the previous amount of rent from $100,000 to $200,000.

MHHH requested a declaration that the deed was null and void, declaration that MHHH owns sole legal title to the property, disgorgement of profits from the defendants, compensatory damages, special damages, punitive damages and attorney’s fees.

The organization announced Tuesday that a settlement was reached and MHHH was awarded the building, a corrected deed, all remaining assets and a settlement from the City of Mount Hope.

Thomas Brown, MHHH’s secretary, said that the board of directors had not authorized permission to release the monetary amount of either the remaining assets or the settlement from the City of Mount Hope to the media.

“We are satisfied with the settlement, we got everything we asked for,” said Brown. “Now the work begins that we wanted to start three years ago.”

Brown said the MHHH has “a lot of ideas and plans” for the old school facility, but a major amount of building maintenance will need to happen first.

“One of our first priorities is to get the building in the historical district,” said Brown.

Brown said that MHHH envisions the building serving as a multi-purpose and learning facility to benefit different groups in Mount Hope, including the Mount Hope High School Alumni Association and DuBois on Main Museum.

— E-mail: bunderwood@register-herald.com

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