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Taxpayers foot bill for parks chief's defense against ethics charge

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The Kanawha County Parks and Recreation Commission paid $56,500 in legal fees to defend its director against ethics charges, and some officials aren't happy taxpayers had to pick up the tab.

Director Jeff Hutchinson signed an agreement settling the 4-year-old complaint on Thursday. As part of that agreement, he will pay a $1,500 fine to the state Ethics Commission. He is to pay it in three installments of $500 each.

He also agreed not to use any parks commission vehicles for personal reasons, not to use parks resources for personal gain and not to accept any gifts of more than $25 without first checking with the Ethics Commission.

Kanawha County Commissioner Dave Hardy said he was disappointed with the state Ethics Commission's findings and that taxpayers had to pay so much for Hutchinson's defense.

"That's public money," Hardy said. "And I am very disappointed that public funds had to be spent in this way."

The county commission provides the parks commission with $1.2 million annually.

Parks Commission President Anna Dailey doesn't regret spending the money.

The Parks Commission provided the figures to the Daily Mail Tuesday. When asked on Monday how much was spent on legal fees, Dailey said she didn't know.

She pointed out that the Ethics Commission eventually dismissed many of the complaints.

"We've been supportive of Jeff through this process because a lot of the issues were issues that involved our policies," she said. 

Commissioner Hoppy Shores believes the county commission needs to look at the agreement and review the legal costs. Like Hardy, Shores considers the legal fees to be substantial and thinks the parks commission should have addressed the issue before it "got out of hand."

Shores also sits on the parks commission.

"This is a (county) commission issue now, and we need to take a look at it," he said. "We need to look at this and make a decision."

Commission President Kent Carper's only comment was, "I wasn't asked about this to begin with."  

Dailey agreed that the legal fees were substantial, but she thinks the parks commission was justified in its decision to defend Hutchinson because several alleged violations listed in the complaint came from the agency not having policies addressing the issues.

For example, Dailey was aware that Hutchinson would sometimes pick up his child from school using a parks commission vehicle if he was already in the area on official businesses.

"We're (parks commission) going to ask for a copy of the county commission's vehicle use policy and possibly adopt it," she said.

Hutchinson was also accused of allowing nonprofit organizations and special interest groups to use park facilities, such as the picnic shelters, free of charge.

Dailey said it was an unwritten parks commission policy that nonprofits like the Boy Scouts be allowed to use some facilities free of charge if those facilities weren't already rented.

However, she added that the parks commission does not have a written policy stating such. This is an oversight she expects to correct in the near future.

The new policy likely will state that it is permissible for parks commission representatives to allow nonprofits to use facilities free of charge once a year, Dailey said.

The legal fees were paid to area law firms Goodwin and Goodwin and Bailey and Wyant.

Goodwin and Goodwin handles most of the parks commission legal business.       

Hutchinson was accused of violations of the state ethics code in complaints filed in 2009 and 2010. There were "dozens" of allegations in the 2009 complaint that was "pages" long, Dailey said.

He was accused of misusing public funds to renovate the director's home at Coonskin Park and of giving away park assets.

Dailey said the majority of the complaints were dismissed.

Hutchinson said he signed the agreement because he wanted to avoid a legal battle that could have greatly increased the commission's legal fees.

"We don't have a lot of money at Parks and Recreation," he said. "And this has been going on for years.

"It got to the point where it was just getting really old. It's been like a nagging toothache."

Hutchinson said some members of the parks commission might offer to have the agency pay his $1,500 fine. However, he will not accept any offer and instead will pay the fine out of his own pocket, he said.

"I think the fine is steep," Dailey said. "He's a public employee."

This is not Hutchinson's first run-in with the Ethics Commission.

In April 2008, the state agency ordered Hutchinson to pay the parks commission $360 for free shoes he received in connection with a vendor contract.

He was fined $100 and told to "cease and desist from accepting any incentive, including free merchandise, in exchange for placing a purchase order for a vendor's merchandise for (the parks commission)."   

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

 


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