CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Bob Henry Baber’s day in court has to head back to square one.
The mayor of Richwood was suing state Auditor J.B. McCuskey to compel him to complete an investigation over Baber’s state-issued purchasing card. Baber also was suing Richwood Council members after they placed him on paid leave until the investigation is completed.
Kanawha Circuit Judge Joanna Tabit today dismissed the mayor’s claims against the Auditor, saying he has no legal grounds to halt the investigation.
And without the Auditor in the case, Tabit ruled that no reason for jurisdiction in Kanawha County remained.
So Baber will have to start over in Nicholas Circuit Court.
Baber said he’s OK with all that though.
He wanted assurances that an investigation by the Auditor’s Office over his state-issued purchasing card will be expedited. He also wanted a swift to conclusion to an audit of the city’s finances over the past four years. He says he has received assurances of a meeting with the Auditor’s office in two weeks.
“I feel fine about what happened because we now have clarity on a time frame here as to when my particular portion of the audit will be resolved, as in we’re gonna sit down in two weeks,” Baber said after today’s hearing.
Council members placed Baber on administrative leave in September after the revelation that McCuskey’s office wanted missing documentation of purchases made on Baber’s state-issued spending card. Baber says the amount in question is $6,500.
Tabit asked questions honing in on why the Auditor was named in the lawsuit.
“What legal right do you have to stop an investigation?” Tabit asked.
Richie Robb, the former South Charleston mayor who is representing Baber, said he doesn’t seek to stop the investigation but he wants it to be completed expeditiously.
“So, in essence, he’s not doing it as quickly as you think he should be?” Tabit asked.
Tabit quickly ruled that the investigation by the Auditor’s Office is within the scope of his job.
“I’m going to find the Auditor has the authority to oversee and investigate the city’s finances,” she said.
“I think he needs to be doing it completely and thoroughly.”
Lawyers for Richwood Council members had supported McCuskey’s motion to be dismissed from the case. If that were to happen, they contended, the case should be moved.
“Nicholas County is the appropriate venue,” said Jared Tully, the lead attorney for the Council members.
Robb disagreed, in part because it would mean starting from scratch. “We’re here. Let’s adjudicate it,” he said.
Tabit disagreed, so the case will go to Nicholas.
After the hearing, McCuskey said it was important that he be dismissed so that investigations by his office can be conducted efficiently and consistently.
“What our office needs the ability to do is investigate the things that we investigate statutorily and do so in the amount of time that it takes,” he said. “We can’t have outside influences change the ways in which we approach different investigations. Everyone needs to be treated fairly and more than anything that’s what this ruling will do.
“I think that’s good for the mayor, for the City of Richwood and for the taxpayers of West Virginia.”
Baber, also speaking after the hearing, said he is glad the Auditor’s Office is taking a comprehensive look at the city’s finances over the past several years.
“I am for a complete and total audit of the city, including my administration,” he said.
Baber says he has come up with 97 percent of the receipts in question. He contends that all were for city expenses.
Richwood is still recovering from the devastating flooding of summer 2016, and its leaders have much left to do.
Baber says the current situation can be attributed to trauma and exhaustion from dealing with the flood. Despite the conflict that’s led to court, he’s willing to work with Council if and when he’s reinstated.
He was also blunt about his position.
“I’m the kind of person who does not hold grudges,” he said. “I never wanted to file this. But basically I was kicked to the curb, disempowered of being the mayor. And I have no choice but to fight my way back into the position I was elected for.”
He continued, “I want to come back and be the mayor that I have been. I’m willing to break bread with Council and put this behind us as a bad situation that’s now resolved.”