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Couch: Commissioners have received complaints against Stephens

PARKERSBURG — The Wood County Commission has received a number of complaints in regard to Wood County Sheriff Steve Stephens, according to a press release issued Tuesday.

The press release from the commission, signed by Commission President Blair Couch, said they have received a number of complaints from employees of the sheriff.

“The Wood County Commission cannot detail those complaints nor can it disclose what actions it has been taking as these are personnel matters,” the press release said. “The commission is very limited in what it can do as the West Virginia Code does not give it any authority over elected officials or those elected officials’ employees in personnel matters.

“We do expect all elected officials to abide by the law and treat all of their employees with dignity and respect.”

Couch said later he conferred with Commissioners Robert Tebay and Jimmy Colombo about the wording of the press release and that they had approved it. Neither Tebay or Colombo could be reached for comment Tuesday.

The complaints regarding the sheriff concerned lawsuits and potential lawsuits, Couch said.

At a meeting last week, Stephens appeared before the commission to address a recent vote of no confidence from the Wood County Deputy Sheriff’s Association. Afterward, Couch said they had received no complaints regarding the sheriff.

Couch clarified Monday that none of the deputies got on the agenda to discuss the matter that day. All the commission received was an unsigned letter from the association without anyone who could specifically address the allegations.

“There are requirements we have as elected officials and people think we have more authority than we do,” Couch said. “We have been made aware of complaints and we have to follow state code.”

A lawsuit was filed last week by Della Matheny, a former deputy in the sheriff’s department.

The lawsuit alleges Stephens violated the West Virginia Human Rights Act, West Virginia Whistleblower Law. The suit alleges Stephens made inappropriate comments to Matheny and took inappropriate interest in other aspects of her life. The suit also mentions attention Stephens reportedly had given to another deputy, Tasha Hewitt.

Stephens was unable to appear at Monday’s commission meeting to address the new lawsuit due to illness. Officials said they would put him on the agenda for Thursday. At 9:30 a.m. Thursday the commission is scheduled to “Discuss personnel issue in the Wood County Sheriff’s Department,” according to the agenda.

A letter to the commission from the law firm of Bailey & Wyant PLLC of Charleston, dated March 30, 2020, talked about alleged actions by Stephens in regard to Hewitt, including putting his hand on her leg, making inappropriate comments about her appearance; threatened and/or attempted to fire her over her relationship with another deputy and referring to her using a vulgar term; and interfered in Hewett’s divorce proceedings. The full letter was published by another local media outlet and the Parkersburg News and Sentinel has filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the county for a copy of that letter, but had not yet received a response to the request by deadline.

The letter from the law firm said the investigation was not a judicial proceeding and statements taken were not under oath. The letter said Stephens “emphatically denies the allegations.” It also said some employees interviewed, although critical of his conduct, said Stephens has done positive things which helped the office.

County officials confirmed that Bailey & Wyant was hired by their insurance company to investigate that matter.

Information released from another Freedom of Information Act request with the county includes a notarized document saying $20,000 was paid to Hewitt and her attorney Scott Kaminski as part of an agreement done through bargaining and negotiation “and represents a final, mutually agreeable compromise.”

Stephens could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

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