PARKERSBURG - A public hearing has been set for July 23-24 on a 2008 West Virginia Ethics Commission complaint filed against former Wood County Sheriff Ken Merritt alleging he used his office for private gain and the private gain of another.
The ethics commission charges were originally filed in March 2008 and related to his son's theft and unauthorized use of county credit cards. The ethics commission alleges Merritt was aware of the theft but allowed the county to continue to pay the bills, then later attempted to interfere with the investigation into the incidents.
Contacted Wednesday by The News and Sentinel, Merritt said he has not been notified of any hearing/trial date and the allegations are "purely politics." Merritt said he had not heard anything from the ethics commission since the initial filing four years ago. "It's always been there, but no one said anything more about it. I don't think it will go anywhere," he said noting there have been other instances where county officials repaid credit cards that had been used for other than county business. "I know I'm being singled out; it's personal," Merritt said. "When I got the bills, I paid them."
A public hearing has been set for July 23-24 on a 2008 West Virginia Ethics Commission complaint filed against former Wood County Sheriff Ken Merritt alleging he used his office for private gain and the private gain of another. (File Photo)
Merritt's son, Bryan Merritt was indicted by a grand jury in 2006 on 20 counts of fraudulent use of credit cards issued to the sheriff's department. Bryan Merritt was accused of charging $676 on an ExxonMobile credit card and $300 on a BP credit card. He later pleaded guilty to five counts of fraudulent use of an access device and one count of attempted use. He was sentenced to one-to-three years in prison on the charge of attempted use. He received probation for the other counts, with probation to begin once the prison time had been served. In March 2011 his probation was revoked after the court ruled he violated the terms of his probation. The sentences of 10 years in prison on each of the five fraudulent use counts were imposed. Some of the sentences were ordered to run at the same time as others, leaving him with a potential sentence of up to 20 years, according to court records.
According to the ethics commission charges, Bryan Merritt stole the gasoline credit cards from his father in May 2006 while Merritt was sheriff, and Merritt was aware his son had the cards. The complaint notes a family friend informed the then-sheriff his son had stolen the cards and was using them. The ethics commission alleges Ken Merritt was aware the cards had been stolen prior to being told by the family friend, including an earlier confrontation with his son during which Bryan admitted having at least one of the cards and returned the BP card.
According to the ethics commission, in late May 2006 Merritt told his chief deputy his wallet was missing. His chief deputy recommended the then-sheriff cancel any missing cards. The ethics commission alleges Merritt took no action and did not notify the county about the theft or unlawful charges, which meant the county paid the bills his son had incurred.
The ethics commission complaint alleges in June 2006 a county employee told the chief deputy of unusual charges on the Exxon bill and the chief deputy asked a deputy to investigate. According to the complaint, the then-sheriff told his chief deputy the missing card was issued in his name and to call off the investigation, saying he considered himself the victim and he did not wish to prosecute.
Around June 16, 2006, "after it became clear that others in the sheriff's department were now aware that at least one credit card was missing, respondent (sheriff Merritt) finally paid for some of the unauthorized charges his son had unlawfully incurred on the Exxon card," according to the charges.
After Parkersburg police began investigating the theft at the request of the prosecuting attorney, Ken Merritt paid for the unauthorized charges his son had unlawfully incurred on the BP card.
State code prohibits public officials from "knowingly or intentionally using their offices or the prestige of their offices for private gain."
An administrative trial was originally scheduled in 2009, but was never held.
"Nothing has been held in the case other than status conferences since the statement of charges was issued. The case was continued on the respondent's' request due to his health," said Joan Parker, general counsel at the ethics commission who is handling Merritt's case.
Parker said after learning of Merritt's candidacy for sheriff, the ethics commission sought to obtain a hearing date. The proceeding, which will be conducted like a trial, is scheduled for July 23-24 in the Buckley conference room of the Wood County Courthouse, to begin both days at 10 a.m. Administrative Law Judge Brace Mullett will preside.
State statutes provide for a stay of any proceedings within 60 days of an election, that is why the administrative trial was not set prior to the May primary.
Parker explained there are two ways a complaint can be initiated with the ethics commission: One is if a citizen files against a public servant, the other is if the ethics commission itself filed a complaint. Parker noted investigations are confidential, and a three-member independent probable cause board then makes a finding. If probable cause is found, statement of charges is filed and an administrative hearing/trial is scheduled.
Once the trial is over, the administrative law judge will request written briefs, then set time to issue a written recommended decision. Once issued, that decision goes to the full ethics commission to be considered at one of its regular meetings. The full commission will either accept, reject or modify the recommended decision and issue an order, Parker explained. The time frames could mean a decision may or may not be rendered prior to the November general election in which Merritt is facing current Sheriff Jeff Sandy..
If the ruling finds Merritt's conduct was in violation of the Ethics Act, and Merritt is elected, the West Virginia Ethics Commission can recommend removal from office.
"However, the ethics commission can only make a recommendation. It does not have the authority to actually order removal from office, that has to be done through other proceedings," Parker said.
Parkersburg attorney John Ellem, who earlier represented Merritt on the allegations, could not be reached Wednesday for comment.