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Commissioners stunned by Chesapeake fire department's response to audit

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As a Kanawha County commissioner for more than a decade, Dave Hardy thought he had seen almost everything.

But he said he was shocked when he saw a confidentiality agreement sent to him by the Chesapeake Volunteer Fire Department, which is being audited by the county.

"I was stunned," he said. "I didn't think I was capable of being that surprised."

Hardy has been a vocal critic of the department's financial practices. Commissioners voted to audit the department last fall and have had difficulty obtaining documents they need, he said.

Hardy has been upfront with his criticism, often speaking out publicly about his concerns with the department.

He is not sure if the confidentiality agreement, which was sent to the commission office some time around Oct. 10, was directed at him specifically.

"But I know they (Chesapeake Volunteer Fire Department) have been very uncomfortable with this being in the media," Hardy said.

The fire department, which runs bingo games, raffle games, a for-profit car wash and a for-profit radio company, had balked at providing numerous documents for the audit.

Fire department officials had failed to provide commissioners with documents pertaining to the bingo and raffle winners and had also not provided W-2s for employees at the for-profit companies, Hardy said.

The agency had also refused to provide W-2s for employees working the bingo and raffle games, he said.

Fire department board chairman Steve Johnson and Fire Chief P.J. Johnson attended a commission meeting on Aug. 2 to discuss the issues. Steve Johnson is P.J. Johnson's father.  

They told commissioners at the meeting they would turn over all of the requested documents. More than two months later, some still haven't been turned over, Hardy said.

Commissioners have yet to receive minutes from a board meeting where $80,000 in salaries was approved for Steve and P.J. Johnson. The pair's salaries combined equal $80,000, Hardy said.

W-2s provided to the commission also had names blacked out, he said. The commission has since requested copies of the W-2s without the names redacted. They've yet to receive them.

Hardy and County Manager Jennifer Sayre recently asked Larry Copeland, the department's attorney, about the documents.  

"We told them that they needed to just tell us they didn't have the documents if they didn't have them," Hardy said.

Hardy also offered a compromise. A memorandum of understanding could be drafted saying the Chesapeake Volunteer Fire Department officials did not have the documents needed for the audit.

The memo would also say that the department agreed to keep the documents moving forward, Hardy said.

At one point, officials told commissioners they couldn't provide copies of documents because they didn't have a copy machine, Hardy said.

"We told them to come down to the courthouse and we'd copy the documents for them," he said.

Steve Johnson told county staff that he would bring the documents down to be copied if the commissioners signed the confidentiality agreement, according to an email provided by Hardy.

"I have no intention of signing that agreement," he said. "I think it's an affront to every taxpayer in the county."

Commission President Kent Carper also said he had no intention of signing the agreement.

Carper, who once threatened to bring a screwdriver to a meeting to take a door off the hinges if the commission went into a closed-door, executive session, said he was surprised when he learned of the agreement.

"I just said I wouldn't sign it," Carper said.

Carper did say he was somewhat sympathetic to the department, adding that officials might be loath to provide some documents regarding the private businesses because they could contain proprietary information.

"From what I've been told, the funds generated by the car wash and radio business have contributed a significant amount of money to the department," Carper said. "And fire departments have to come up with money to run."

Hardy said he would not support the county ever doing business with Communication Services Inc., the radio company owned by the department, until the documents are turned over.

Hardy will also not support providing money directly to the department until the matter is resolved. The county commission typically approves $20,000 annually to each fire department in the county.

The county also provides excess levy funds to police and fire departments.  

Instead of giving the department money directly, the commission will pay bills accrued by the department directly to the vendors, Hardy said.

"We're doing that to help keep the citizens of Chesapeake safe," he said.

Representatives from Chesapeake Volunteer Fire Department did not return calls seeking comment.

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


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