Richwood Mayor Bob Henry Baber's city purchasing card has been shut off amid an investigation by the West Virginia State Auditor's Office, and Baber said he's now on paid administrative leave after declining the City Council's request for his resignation Thursday night.
Auditor JB McCuskey said he got a complaint Aug. 23, and his office shut off Baber's purchasing card, also called p-card, the next day. McCuskey didn't reveal who made the complaint.
"What we had was enough suspicion to shut the card down and begin the investigation, McCuskey said Friday.
Baber said Friday that "nobody's bought anything for themselves or anything like that, but did say a card was given to a couple of workers who didn't know they weren't supposed to buy gas with it, and it was given to some caterers to prepare for a dinner.
Baber said a $34 charge to his city card from King Cut Rate Tobaccos was from the caterers buying the liqueur for a dessert. He said the dessert was part of a dinner when an out-of-state lawyer visited as part of the city's resistance to school consolidation.
"There are going to be some issues with the card where we got out of our lanes, Baber said. "I did not know you can't allow other people to use your p-card, so, of course, ignorance of the law is no excuse. So I probably am in some legal peril, and that's quite worrisome to me, of course, and the last thing in the world I would ever want to do, of course, is damage Richwood's recovery efforts.
Jeff Waybright, McCuskey's chief of staff, said additional Richwood employees' purchasing cards were shut down at the City Council's request. Marty Wright, the state auditor's general counsel and director of the office's fraud unit, said four more workers' cards were shut down Friday, after Baber wrote in Facebook posts Thursday night that he had allowed other employees to use his city card.
"In light of the comments by the mayor, out of an abundance of caution, we have halted all cards to the city, Wright said.
Richwood City Recorder Chris Drennen, who's now running the city in Baber's place, said Friday that the City Council had called an emergency meeting for 6:30 p.m. that day, but she didn't know the purpose of the meeting. She said she's been ill and was absent from Thursday night's meeting.
City councilmembers contacted Friday did not respond to requests for comment.
Charges to Baber's card total $6,245, according to records from the Auditor's Office, but Wright wouldn't specify which purchases were suspicious or under investigation.
"This is still an open investigation, during which we, as part of our normal investigative process, will look at all transactions, to determine their legitimacy and make sure they're not for personal use, Wright said.
"I was issued a Purchase order card which has been used for travel [which the City was aware of] to Philadelphia to negotiate with FEMA and to meet with the law firm fighting the 428 grant program that has allowed the relocation of Long Beach hospital ... just like our schools, Baber wrote in his Thursday Facebook post.
Baber has been an unceasing, vocal critic of the Nicholas County Board of Education's plan to use Federal Emergency Management Agency recovery money for the June 2016 flood to consolidate Richwood Middle and Richwood High into a campus near Summersville. The FEMA funds could, instead, rebuild the Richwood schools, which have been closed since the flood.
The 428 program is one FEMA funding avenue that will allow consolidation.
"Unfortunately the folder with receipts was misplaced, Baber wrote in the post. "I have spent weeks tracking them down, and now have 90 per cent of them in hand. Also, I let trusted workers use the p-card to make needed purchases for the City.
Late Friday afternoon, he said he'd retrieved only about 75 percent of the receipts.
While McCuskey said charges to the local p-cards have to be reimbursed by the city, not the state, he said his office monitors for possible fraud in their use.
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