Ethics complaints done; investigation, audit remain

PARKERSBURG – A half dozen ethics complaints against former Mayor Bob Newell have been dismissed, but not all inquiries related to the controversy that has hung over the city for more than a year are complete.

City officials will meet Monday morning with representatives of the West Virginia Auditor’s Office for an exit conference on the audit of the fiscal year running from July 1, 2014, to June 30, 2015. The audit is a standard annual procedure, but this one is likely to be more closely watched since it was during that period that some council members began questioning aspects of the city’s fiscal management and the initial complaint against Newell was filed with the West Virginia Ethics Commission. In it, Parkersburg resident and Wood County Republican Executive Committee chairman Rob Cornelius accused Newell of misusing city resources while having an affair with then-Finance Director Ashley Flowers.

Five more complaints making similar allegations were filed in March.

The 2013-14 audit, which covered approximately seven months of Flowers’ tenure as finance director, found one violation, related to bond debt-service coverage in the city’s parking fund, but resulted in an unmodified opinion, the highest possible rating.

The Ethics Commission dismissal order provided by Newell’s attorney Harry Deitzler says that after a thorough investigation, the commission’s Probable Cause Review Board came to the opinion “that probable cause does not exist to believe the Respondent (Newell) materially violated any prohibition of the Ethics Act as alleged.”

Last week, the Wood County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office submitted a letter to Parkersburg City Clerk Connie Shaffer saying its review of a private accounting company’s report on financial matters focused on the city’s Coal Severance Fund found nothing that rose to the level of criminal violations. That review said money from the Coal Severance Fund had been used for allowable purchases but taken from the wrong line items.

However, Prosecutor Jason Wharton has not commented since January on the status of an investigation initiated in December 2014 at his request by the West Virginia State Police into the assembly and dissemination of a series of anonymous flash drives containing files that prompted the original complaint against Newell. The investigation was also to examine whether the material indicated any illegal activity, along with recordings of people believed to be Newell and Flowers that were posted online. The State Police report on the matter was received by Wharton’s office in October.

In January, Wharton declined to comment on whether the case would eventually be presented to a grand jury.

Multiple Parkersburg City Council members said Tuesday that with the complaints dismissed, it was time to move on from the matter.

“I’ve all along been, ‘If there’s anything there, we’ll see it,'” Council President John Rockhold said. “They’ve proved my point.”

Councilwoman Sharon Lynch said the dismissal confirmed what she thought.

“I never believed he took any money or misappropriated any money,” she said. “It’s time to leave it alone and move on.”

Councilman J.R. Carpenter, who called for Newell’s resignation last year, said the time to move on was when Newell stepped down to retire on the eve of a hearing before a three-judge panel to determine whether he should remain in office.

The decision by the Probable Cause Review Board is “what they saw fit,” Carpenter said.

Using money from the incorrect line items in the Coal Severance Fund is still misappropriation of money, he said.

“But there is no penalty for that, basically,” Carpenter said. “That doesn’t diminish what has occurred.”

Councilwoman Nancy Wilcox said financial issues that needed to be corrected have been and there’s nothing council can do about the past.

“We need to be diligent and move forward,” she said.

Councilmen Roger Brown and Jim Reed and Councilwoman Kim Coram declined to comment. Councilman Mike Reynolds did not return a call seeking comment.

In his statement on the dismissals Monday, Newell claimed Cornelius and former Wood County Commissioner and city Police Chief Rick Modesitt misinformed the citizens who filed the subsequent complaints, adding that Modesitt has filed ethics complaints against political foes before. Asked for comment by the News and Sentinel, Modesitt responded by email, saying, “I have never filed ethics complaints on anyone.”

Among the documents submitted as exhibits for the canceled hearing on Newell’s eligibility to remain in office is a 2012 notice from the Ethics Commission informing Newell a complaint filed against him by Modesitt had been dismissed. The former mayor has accused Modesitt of being involved with the dissemination of the flash drives, and multiple exhibits dealt with Freedom of Information Act requests and other clashes with Newell.

Asked about the 2012 complaint Tuesday, Modesitt initially responded with an email from Ethics Commission Executive Director Rebecca Stepto saying the commission’s records show no complaints filed in his name since 2010. When emailed a copy of the document, Modesitt said it was in fact something he’d filed four years ago.

“However, as previously stated, as it relates to his most recent ethics complaints filed by others, I did not file any complaints relating to those issues nor (was I) involved,” he said via email. “There has been nothing in recent years.”

It was not immediately clear Tuesday why the Ethics Commission records apparently did not include the complaint, which according to the commission’s document retention policy, would have been kept on file for six years.