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Chesapeake Volunteer Fire Department under criminal investigation

The Kanawha County prosecutor's office has launched a criminal investigation into allegations the Chesapeake Volunteer Fire Department misappropriated public funds.

Kanawha County Prosecutor Mark Plants confirmed that his office had subpoenaed information from the VFD.

However, Plants would not comment on what information was subpoenaed or if fire department officials were cooperating with the investigation, citing rules of professional conduct.

"It's very early in the investigation," Plants said.

Questions about the department's financial practices are nothing new.  

County Commissioner Dave Hardy has often criticized the department for its financial practices and oversight.

The department's financial practices came under fire last fall.

Department officials refused to provide financial records to the county for an audit. The county provides about $20,000 to the department annually as well as funds from the public safety grant program.

However, commissioners voted to begin paying the department's vendors directly and not give the funds to the department because of the refusal to provide some financial documents.

Fire Chief P.J. Johnson did not return calls seeking comment.

The fire department has also run afoul of the state Legislative Auditor's Office.

The department refused to provide financial records to the state as well, prompting the agency to withhold about $12,000 at the beginning of the year.

However, the department did provide the financial statements once the state agency informed VFD officials the money was being withheld.

Staff members with the legislative auditor's office are currently reviewing the financial records, said Stan Lynch, audit director for the state's Legislative Post Audit Division.

Lynch hopes to issue a post audit report on the financial records by the end of the month. 

However, no funds will be allocated until the second quarter of the year.

The state allocates a portion of a 0.5 percent surcharge on property and casualty insurance premiums to fire departments around the state.

Although Hardy said he was not happy to see a county fire department under criminal investigation, he is hopeful the "truth will come to light."

"I never accused anyone at the Chesapeake Fire Department of any criminal activity," he said. "I just wanted to get at the truth.

"But all attempts to get to the truth have been stonewalled by the department," Hardy added. 

Hardy initially became concerned over the VFD's financial practices in the fall of 2011 when he learned the agency had not paid a fuel bill owed to the Kanawha Valley Regional Transportation Authority.

He soon learned the VFD grossed $4.2 million from bingo and raffle from the beginning of 2009 to the end of 2010.

He also learned that the department paid Johnson a $56,000 annual salary.

The town of Chesapeake is also now seeking back business and occupation taxes from a radio company owned by the department.

Hardy has called for Johnson and the department's board members to step down to restore public confidence. Johnson's father, Steve Johnson, is president of the board.

Steve Johnson collects about $30,000 a year from Communication Services Inc., the radio company owned by the department.

Hardy is unsure what will come of the criminal investigation. However, he hopes the department will become more transparent once the investigation is concluded.

"I'm sorry that it came to this," he said.

The discussions between the commission and the fire department have become heated at times.

On Aug. 2, VFD officials attended a commission meeting to discuss the county's audit.

Verbal sparring commenced when Hardy accused them of dragging their feet when it came to providing the records.

VFD officials asked commissioners to sign a confidentiality agreement before they would turn over the records. Commissioners rejected the request.

Contact writer Paul Fallon at paul.fallon@dailymail.com or 304-348-4817. Follow him at www.twitter.com/PaulBFallon.


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