CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Richwood Mayor Bob Henry Baber, who has been guiding his town’s efforts to rally from catastrophic flooding while also fighting a school consolidation proposal, says Council has asked him to resign over undocumented spending on his state-issued purchasing card.
Baber, whose term as mayor began just days after the 2016 flooding, said he declined to resign. In the meantime, he said he has been placed on administrative leave.
Baber, who has been mayor twice during the past two decades, left his earlier term early in the midst of impeachment proceedings.
In a Facebook post and then in a followup telephone interview, Baber said that during a regular Thursday night meeting Council members asked him to account for purchases on the state-issued spending card he was issued as mayor.
Baber acknowledged he’s been having trouble finding some of the receipts for purchases on the card. He said he has been gathering them and plans to begin working matters out with the state Auditor’s Office today.
He estimated he’s found about 90 percent of the receipts but that perhaps another thousand dollars over a six-month period remains to be reconciled.
“My own personal life, honestly, has been pretty much a shambles in the past year,” Baber said, referring to how busy the job has been. “I wish I’d done a better job of keeping track of the receipts.”
The state Auditor’s office, responding this morning to Baber’s comments, acknowledged receiving a complaint about the mayor’s use of his purchasing card on August 23 and shut down the card the same day. The purchasing card fraud unit went to Richwood the next day to gather records for an investigation.
“It’s really our policy to keep these things quiet but the mayor’s Facebook post referencing our office prompted us to respond,” Auditor J.B. McCuskey said in a telephone interview today.
“As far as I know we had not been in communication with the mayor, we did not know he was coming here today, and if when he comes here today we cannot meet with him now. At this point we can only meet with him in the course of our investigation.”
Fraudulent use of state-issued purchasing cards could potentially result in felony charges punishable with one to 5 years of jail time and a $5,000 fine under West Virginia Code 6-9-2c. The Auditor’s purchasing card unit works cooperatively with county prosecutors.
“We’re working with local law enforcement in Nicholas County to ensure that if any laws were broken that the appropriate punishments are handed out,” McCuskey said today.
“Mayor Baber has not been proven to have done anything wrong. We are investigating allegations, and that’s the reason we have created a fraud unit whose main purpose is to efficiently and appropriately review these complaints because we get a lot of them.”
Baber posted about the situation on “I am Richwood,” a public discussion group that focuses on flood recovery and resistance to countywide school consolidation.
In the telephone interview, Baber said he was asked to resign Thursday evening during a regular Council meeting.
“The council had requested two weeks or so ago to get all these receipts together, but I’ve been insanely busy with FEMA and fighting for the schools and I haven’t had the time. I had to track down all these receipts,” he said this morning.
He said he respectfully declined the resignation request: “We were all polite. We didn’t really have any hard words.”
Baber said he was gathering more receipts and intended to travel to the state Auditor’s office today to continue to clarify his spending records.
“I’m going to go down to the Auditor’s office today, sit down with them: Here’s what I have on the computer, here’s what I’ve found, here’s what I haven’t found. And hopefully clear this mess up. That’s all I know to do.”
In the Facebook post and in the interview, Baber said two areas of spending lacked documentation.
One was for a trip to Philadelphia to negotiate with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and to meet with a law firm that mounted an earlier legal battle against an alternative federal disaster spending system that’s a key piece of the Nicholas County consolidation proposal.
“Unfortunately, the folder with receipts was misplaced,” Baber wrote on Facebook. “I have spent weeks tracking them down, and now have 90 percent of them in hand.”
He said the other was a general habit of, in the moment, handing off his card to others for small purchases and neglecting to gather documentation afterwards.
“I know you’re supposed to save receipts. Stuff would happen,” he said. “I’d hand the card to somebody and say buy paper plates, buy plastic knives and forks.”
He wrote on Facebook: “Many purchases were at Dollar General in Richwood, mostly in small amounts for events for the people, supplies (paper plates, decorations for the dedicated homes and the like). We’ve requested receipts from Dollar General but it’s a time-consuming process to go to corporate. There are others I’m trying to track down.”
He said the city’s own record-keeping has been good but admitted that his own had become disorganized.
“I, and the the City Council, are highly concerned with the integrity of the City’s finances,” Baber wrote on Facebook. “But to say that it has been a chaotic and hard year since the Thousand Year Flood would be an incredible understatement. I too have been damaged emotionally,spiritually and financially. But not as badly as so many others for whom I feel great empathy.”
In addition to continuing to recover from the summer 2016 flooding, Richwood remains in two legal battles.
One is over the consolidation of the county’s flooded schools to one campus closer to Summersville. Richwood residents have said such consolidation will severely hamper the community’s economic and civic recovery. An appeal in the case has now gone to the state Supreme Court.
Another is over a Richwood nursing home that was severely damaged during the flooding. Almost 100 residents had to be evacuated to an emergency shelter and nearby hospitals.
About four to six inches of rain fell on Richwood, causing severe flooding and filling people’s homes with water and mud.
On Facebook this morning, most people reacting to the mayor’s situation expressed concern.
“While reading Bob’s post, I was thinking, ‘I don’t think I have ever seen any mayor anywhere fight for their little town like he does,'” one commenter wrote.
Another wrote, “Why would they do this at this time? I know how hard it is to keep everything exactly straight in a time like this. We flooded last year and lost everything we had and we are just getting our finances straight.”
And then another wrote, “I realize that sometimes matters become overwhelming. That being said, one should always keep receipts, keep spending in a ledger to where all monies go. Audits should be done and money accounted for.”
Baber, the mayor of a town of a little more than 2,000 people has had a varied and interesting life, enough to have his own Wikipedia page. He is a poet and has been a candidate for multiple offices, including for governor and U.S. Senator.
He previously served as mayor of Richwood, starting in 2004.
Late in that term, he was also investigated, this time on ethics charges and election fraud. A week before impeachment allegations were to be heard by a three-judge panel in Nicholas Circuit Court, Baber resigned and accepted a position at Glenville State College as a grant-writer and developer.
In that case, he told Beckley’s Register-Herald newspaper that he thought others in the county were out to get him politically.
“I can tell you that a pattern of harassment of me exists in this county despite all my efforts to try to do good for Richwood,” he said. “We’ve got a cluster of folks here who live to thwart.”