CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia’s secretary for Health and Human Resources says he’s sorry about continued payments on office suites the state vacated in 2015.
“I apologize to the people of West Virginia, to our legislators. We certainly did not intend for this to happen in any way, and we’re fixing this so it won’t happen again,” Bill Crouch said today on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”
The State Auditor, in a report released this week, concluded that the state made almost a million dollars in payments after vacating office space at Middletown Mall in Fairmont.
The Auditor recommended the state review its accounting practices and use any method necessary to try to recoup the money.
“We are doing a further investigation as part of the recommendations the Auditor made,” Crouch said today. “We appreciate the Auditor bringing this up. We want to fix these things. We’ve asked the inspector general for a review of all of our policies.”
Crouch said the state is also working to get the money back, saying the agency has been working with the Attorney General’s Office.
Middletown Mall has been in bankruptcy, with the property being sold from previous owner Pin Oak Properties to General Acquisitions of Morgantown.
“We have filed a letter with the bankruptcy court in terms of our position on this money,” Crouch said. “We are going to do everything we can to get this money back.”
No such letter was yet available to the public on Friday among the bankruptcy filings.
David Biafora, who owns General Acquisitions with his brother Rick, said this week that he has not yet seen clear documentation that the state intended to vacate the mall property.
“In my file, I have a lease,” Biafora said. “That’s all that was given to me during bankruptcy.”
State officials have produced a new letter saying the property is vacated and that the lease should be considered canceled. On Friday, they also released receipts from certified letters, including one for General Acquisitions.
Biafora said until he sees official documentation his business has to assume the lease is still good through its 2019 expiration date.
Otherwise, he said, he can’t just assume the state’s intentions.
“People vacate places all the time and pay until their lease is up,” he said. “Sometimes they just pay the lease out, sometimes they make a deal.
“When we bought the mall, before we bought the note, we were told DHHR was not occupying the space, it was empty but they were still paying the rent and it was on the rent roll.”
An unsigned, undated memo on Real Estate Division letterhead described moving out of the property in 2015.
“There’s no date on it, no signature, nothing. That’s pretty baffling,” he said. “It sounds like the have a draft letter. Or maybe they made this letter up and don’t want to sign it and date it. We’ve read this thing like ten times.”
Crouch said it should be clear the state vacated the mall property and that it should go after the money it paid since then.
“We were not using the building. The building was vacated by DHHR. The dates it was vacated were clear,” he said.
“Because of the process in terms of the West Virginia Real Estate Division being responsible for canceling the lease we continue to pay — and I certainly don’t want to throw them under the bus in any way – we were responsible in many ways for this and we share that responsibility. It is our responsibility, because we made the payments, to go after this money — so we’re working with the Attorney General’s Office to do that.”