PARKERSBURG - A former Wood County sheriff has agreed to a public reprimand and a fine from the West Virginia Ethics Commission as the result of a conciliation agreement, the commission announced on Thursday.
Ken Merritt conceded he violated state code, but stated it was never his intention to violate the ethics act. Merritt, alleged to have used his office for private gain for the gain of another, agreed to the reprimand and fines and costs of $3,500.
"... I acknowledge that my judgment was clouded as a result of the family relationship, and that intent for proving a violation of the ethics act, may not be relevant,' the agreement states.
The agreement also states Merritt, in agreeing to the conciliation, is not admitting he engaged in criminal conduct.
"The parties agree that the ethics commission has not and will not make a criminal referral regarding the allegations in the instant complaint," the agreement states.
The allegations stem from a theft by Merritt's son's, Bryan Merritt, and unauthorized use of county credit cards. The agreement states 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.
Merritt was scheduled to have a hearing before the commission, but it was canceled as the two sides worked toward an agreement. The agreement was released late Thursday afternoon by Theresa Kirk, executive director of the ethics commission.
Kirk, in an email to The News and Sentinel prior to the release of the agreement, said no member of the commission is authorized to comment on the merits of the case.
Merritt, a Republican, is a candidate for sheriff and running against Democratic incumbent Jeff Sandy in November.
John Ellem, Merritt's attorney, confirmed Merritt entered into a conciliation agreement with the ethics commission.
In its entirety, the release said.
"The ethics complaint filed against Ken Merritt in 2008 actually arises from events six years ago when then-Sheriff Ken Merritt's son took his father's county issued credit cards and made various unauthorized charges on it without Sheriff Merritt's knowledge. The complaint stated that as sheriff he did not take timely action when learning of this and was concerned that his son's girlfriend may have been involved and prosecuting her could cause him not to be able to see his grandchild.
"As noted in the conciliation agreement, Mr. Merritt maintains he took timely action when he learned that the credit cards were missing. Specifically, as noted in the conciliation agreement "since it was his county card that was lost, he would pay all unauthorized charges" and thus in fact, again, as noted in the agreement, "the county did not incur any fees or costs" as a result of Mr. Merritt's son's misuse of the cards. Moreover, Mr. Merritt maintains he in fact cooperated in his son's investigation including turning over evidence to other law enforcement agencies.
"This matter has already received considerable attention due to the prosecution of Mr. Merritt's son. Therefore, to spare his family from having to relive this matter through another hearing, Mr. Merritt decided to enter the conciliation agreement. The actual conciliation provisions state that 'under circumstances set forth above, I may have violated the Ethics Act' and 'It was never my intention to violate the Ethics Act, but I acknowledge that my judgment was clouded as a result of the family relationship, and that intent for proving a violation of the Ethics Act, may not be relevant.' The conciliation agreement makes no specific finding that Mr. Merritt violated the ethics act. In exchange for this conciliation Mr. Merritt agreed to a reprimand, a fine and reimbursement of ethics commission costs.
"Mr. Merritt is relieved this matter is resolved both for himself and the sake of his family, and looks forward to serving the citizens of Wood County once again."
According to the conciliation agreement's finding of fact Merritt's son stole the gasoline credit cards from his father in May 2006. Merritt knew his son had the cards. The agreement states a family friend informed Merritt his son had stolen the cards and was using them.
In the agreement Merritt "asserts" he does not recall the conversation.
Merritt later told his chief deputy, T.R. Smith, his wallet was missing. Smith recommended Merritt cancel any missing cards.
The ethics commission alleged Merritt took no action and did not notify the county of the theft or unlawful charges, which the county continued to pay.
Merritt asserts he took timely action to address the matter, including canceling the cards.
In June 2006, a county employee notified Smith of unusual charges on the Exxon bill and Smith asked a deputy to investigate. According to the agreement, Merritt 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.
In the agreement Merritt concedes he instructed Smith not to investigate the matter. Merritt claims he suspected his son's girlfriend had taken the card.
"He stated that he did not want to prosecute her because she was the mother of his grandchild and it would prevent him from seeing his grandchild, and since it was a county card that was lost, the respondent would pay all unauthorized charges."
Merritt made payments to the credit card companies and reimbursed the county for the funds.
According to the agreement, Merritt is publicly reprimanded and ordered to pay $2,000 for the costs incurred by the commission to investigate the case, as well as a $1,500 fine.
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. He pleaded guilty to five counts of fraudulent use of an access device and one count of attempted use.
The ethics charges against Ken Merritt were originally filed in March 2008.
An administrative trial on the allegations was scheduled in 2009, but was never held. The case was continued on request from Merritt for health reasons. When the ethics commission learned Merritt filed to run for sheriff, they sought a hearing date.