PARKERSBURG - A letter written by attorney Andrew Woofter to Wood County Commission President Blair Couch about delinquent personal property taxes owed by Couch's former business was released pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Couch's political opponent Harry Deitzler, officials said on Friday.
The Parkersburg News and Sentinel on Thursday reported taxes of $16,582 remain owed by A.W. Couch Inc., a car rental firm that ceased operation when the franchises in the area were taken over by the Hertz Corp. The debt was first reported two years ago.
Couch, a Republican and the incumbent county commissioner, in the November general election will face Deitzler, a former Wood County prosecutor who is with the Charleston law firm of Carper, Bee and Deitzler.
Wood County Prosecutor Jason Wharton Friday said the FOIA request was made around April 6.
"The FOIA request was from Harry Deitzler," Wharton said.
While Woofter, special counsel for the sheriff's tax office, on Wednesday said he believed the letter was privileged communications between attorney and client, Wharton said it was his opinion under FOIA that the letter was a "disclosable document."
The letter outlined a repayment plan with Couch, but was never mailed to Couch after the agreement was never approved by the tax office, Woofter said.
"The FOIA policy is to keep the public informed and disclosures are to be liberally construed. Looking at this particular document, although attorney/client privilege is recognized under FOIA, it was my opinion it was a disclosable document," Wharton said.
Wood County Sheriff Jeff Sandy said the FOIA request came to the tax office.
"The tax office is handled by chief tax deputy Dennie Huggins and we were advised by legal counsel, (Wood County Prosecutor) Jason Wharton, to release the letter. We were advised by the prosecutor that everything that we had in that file needed to be released pursuant to the FOIA request," Sandy said.
The sheriff said he did not see the FOIA request, but it was handled in the same manner as any other FOIA request.
Huggins could not be reached for comment on Friday.
Contacted Friday, Deitzler said he had no comment.
Woofter is special counsel to the tax office in delinquent tax collections. Couch was referred to Woofter after he contacted the tax office regarding delinquent 2009 and 2010 personal property taxes totaling $16,582.
The tax is owed on fleet vehicles of the business that was owed by A.W. Couch Inc., a car rental business on St. Marys Avenue. Hertz Corp. purchased the Parkersburg franchise for the business. Couch said he felt the tax obligation was with the Hertz Corp. But the corporation said since A.W. Couch's name was on the bill, that firm had the obligation to pay, Couch said. Couch then contacted the tax office and was referred to Woofter.
The letter, dated Dec. 16, 2011, states Woofter was advised A.W. Couch Inc. is no longer in operation and has no remaining assets and although Couch personally is under no legal obligation to do so, he was making efforts to pay the tax obligation of A.W. Couch Inc.
Woofter said by statute the sheriff could not accept partial payment on tax bills, Woofter agreed, "with the consent of the sheriff's tax office" to accept those payments and place them in a trust account until there were sufficient funds to pay the bills.
The News and Sentinel first reported on the delinquent taxes two years ago when they became delinquent. At that time, Couch said he believed Hertz would be responsible for payment, and they were attempting to work it out. After it was determined Hertz was not going to pay, he attempted to pay them.
Couch said he didn't believe he owed the taxes, but agreed to pay them because it was the family name.