It has been almost three years since a devastating flood in West Virginia. The Nicholas County community of Richwood was among the hardest hit. The raging floodwaters destroyed more than 200 homes and buildings, washed away roads, bridges and sections of the town’s infrastructure.
The recovery in Richwood has been a hard slog and, to make matters worse, now the town and several of its current and former leaders are caught up in a scandal over how federal flood relief money was spent.
A recently-completed report by Auditor J.B. McCuskey’s office concluded, “The city appears to be in more need of finance recovery than before the flood of June, 2016.” As our Brad McElhinny reported, “The report… concludes city leaders spent precious federal dollars to hire themselves, friends and family for flood relief jobs. Much of the money was not spent for its stated purposes,” the report concluded.
Mayor Chris Drennen, former Mayor Bob Henry Baber and former City Recorder Abby McClung are charged with embezzlement. The town’s police chief, Lloyd Allen Cogar, is accused of mishandling his state purchasing card—a charge unrelated to the flood recovery. Richwood City Council has fired Cogar and asked Mayor Drennen to resign.
All four defendants enjoy a presumption of innocence. Drennen has publicly proclaimed she did nothing wrong, while Baber gave MetroNews the following cryptic statement; “Some truths have come out. More are yet to come.”
The court system will sort out the charges, but the story appears more complicated than simple wrongdoing. The flood was a monumental disaster, and it is not surprising if best practices were ignored or even unknown during the long and exhausting recovery. So-called experts often descend on disaster areas peddling their alleged expertise in how to manage federal disaster aid.
What is still to be determined is whether a couple of individuals knowingly violated the law for their own gain or whether the situation was so challenging that few could measure up. Did this small community receive the guidance, support and oversight necessary to mount an effective recovery?
The Auditor’s report suggests a combination of factors: “Systemic failures and individual misconduct over the last several years have left the city of Richwood in such financial distress that the city may be unable to financially recover.” The city may have to pay back as much as $2 million of the $3.1 million it received from FEMA for disaster recovery.
Richwood has had a rough couple of years; the calamitous flood, a bitter school consolidation fight, a nasty political battle over the ouster of Baber as mayor, and now this. The state police investigation and the Auditor’s report are steps toward resolution and repair.
Meanwhile, as the report said, Richwood should also serve as a cautionary tale.
“While the conduct and action of officials within the city of Richwood were largely self-inflicted, they can serve as teachable moments for the state as a whole. Various counties and municipalities in this state have faced situations similar to Richwood, and blindly rely upon promises of outside consultants and public officials.”
The solution is transparency and accountability. That is finally coming to Richwood, and hopefully it is not too late to save the town from even more despair.