CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Richwood Mayor Bob Henry Baber, who was asked to resign last week by Town Council, says he is continuing to serve as mayor.
Baber initially declined to resign but believed he was being placed on administrative leave over an investigation into documentation of expenses on his state-issued purchasing card.
Since then, though, Baber has concluded the town’s charter requires a two-thirds vote of Council plus a formal presentation of charges to relieve him of his duties.
So, Baber goes to work every day as Richwood’s mayor.
“Per the charter — I’ve studied the charter, and I’m back to work. I’ve been back to work. I was never sent on leave. There’s no such thing,” he said this morning via telephone.
A Town Council meeting that had been set for this past Wednesday wound up being canceled. Baber says he doesn’t know why, and no particular explanation was provided by other city officials either.
Initially, town leaders said recorder Chris Drennan was being named acting mayor. Baber said this morning that Drennan had been at Town Hall a couple of days earlier this week, apparently trying to fill that role. “She was for a couple of days,” Baber said. “Now she’s disappeared.”
Richwood Councilman Chuck Toussieng, in a telephone interview this morning, said that last Thursday council members and Baber himself worked to draft a motion placing the mayor on administrative leave.
“When you enter into an agreement with someone, I would expect the other person to uphold the agreement he entered into with City Council. It’s unfortunately causing a massive amount of confusion that he’s decided to take this path,” Toussieng said.
“All I can tell you is this: the mayor agreed with City Council, helped us draft the motion, in fact, to place him on administrative leave. It was a unanimous vote from all present and so we were under the assumption that he agreed to be placed on administrative leave, and on Monday he came back to work. Why, I can’t speculate.”
Toussieng said City Council is trying to be careful and cautious about the purchasing card allegations.
“Council had asked that his pcard be revoked. Obviously this was an ongoing issue so Council asked that his pcard be taken away. The mayor then went to the press and admitted he had used it in an inappropriate way, which then caused the state to revoke all city cards. That was the mayor’s admission.”
Toussieng was aware of the question of whether the town charter allows for Council to place the mayor on administrative leave.
Richwood’s government acts as a city council/mayoral form of government with the Council consisting of eight members plus the mayor, who gets a vote.
“Did Council have the authority to place the mayor on administrative leave? That’s not in our charter,” Toussieng said.
“However, as an abundance of caution, Council worked with the mayor together and drafted a motion. The mayor, in the body of the motion, agreed to it — for him to be placed on administrative leave. So his coming back to work to me is not in the best interest of the city at this time. I wish we could all put our emotions aside and act in the way that’s in the best interest of our city.”
The state Auditor’s office received a question about the expenses on Baber’s purchasing card earlier this month and immediately shut down the card. Fraud unit investigators then went to Richwood and started gathering information.
Council, at that time, asked Baber to provide documentation of his expenses on the card. He delayed in making the necessary progress, and Council members asked him to resign during a regular meeting last Thursday evening.
Baber has said several thousand dollars spent on the card over about 6 months has needed to be reconciled and that he’s made some progress.
In his own Facebook post and in interviews, 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 a controversial 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. Most of those purchases were at the local Dollar General, he said, but others in the notebook he displayed appeared to be from WalMart, Starbucks and Taco Bell.
“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.”
State Auditor J.B. McCuskey last week acknowledged an investigation of Baber’s spending documentation.
“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.
“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 said today that he has tried to remain in touch with the Auditor’s office. Last week, he went to the office to try to iron out his documentation issues, but investigators said they couldn’t informally speak with him.
“All I can say is I emailed them yesterday to expedite the process for the good of everyone and offered any further assistance,” Baber said today.
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.
Baber has been in the public eye over the past year as Richwood fought to come back from catastrophic flood damage and then in the battles over county school consolidation.
A crucial week in that battle is coming up, with a state Supreme Court hearing set for Tuesday focusing on the school consolidation issue. Richwood’s desire to keep its local high school is at odds with a county-backed consolidation proposal.
“I will be there in my mayoral capacity,” Baber said this morning.
He added that there’s still much more to be done to recover from the devastating floods of summer 2016.
“Oh, there’s piles of work to be done. We’re still absolutely in flood-recovery mode. I know that’s hard for folks to wrap their minds around,” he said. “Yes, there’s work to be done and I’m going to keep doing it.”
Baber, the mayor of a town of a little more than 2,000 people has had a varied and interesting life. 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.
In that case, he told Beckley’s Register-Herald newspaper that he thought others in the county were out to get him politically. In a separate conversation this morning, he reiterated that.
“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 told the Beckley newspaper in.2007. “We’ve got a cluster of folks here who live to thwart.”