CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Richwood Mayor Bob Henry Baber, who was asked by his Council to resign over an investigation into his state-issued purchasing card, acknowledged irresponsibility but not intentional law-breaking while talking to reporters outside the state Auditor’s office on Friday afternoon.
Baber said about $10,000 spent on the card over about 6 months has needed to be reconciled and that he’s made some progress.
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.
Today, the mayor publicly acknowledged that he’d been irresponsible. He also said that since flooding devastated Richwood right as he’d become mayor, he hadn’t ever gone through a training session about use of the cards.
He said he’d learned today that some of the actions on his card ran afoul of the rules governing state-issued purchasing card. For instance, he had turned over the card to others for purchases. One purchase, which he said was made by a caterer, was at a tobacco shop for what Baber described as a dessert liquor.
The state Auditor’s office received a question about the expenses on Baber’s purchasing card about two weeks ago and immediately shut down the card. Fraud unit investigators then went to Richwood and started gathering information.
Council, also two weeks ago, 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 Thursday evening.
A special council meeting was set for 6:30 p.m. today. Baber, during the conversation with reporters, said he had been unaware of it.
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.
Here are Baber’s remarks this afternoon:
— Brad McElhinny (@BradMcElhinny) September 22, 2017
Baber had gone to the Capitol to try to talk to representatives of the state Auditor’s office. He arrived with a folder of his records and his laptop, which he said he’d offer to let the Auditor’s office inspect.
Earlier Friday, though, state Auditor J.B. McCuskey said it’s outside of protocol to have casual discussions with someone who’s spending is under investigation.
“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,” McCuskey said in a MetroNews interview Friday morning.
McCuskey added, “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.
“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.”
Chuck Toussieng, a Richwood Council member, wrote Friday afternoon on the “I am Richwood” community page on Facebook that council members had to act carefully to preserve the community’s financial integrity.
“We as a city are in a very precarious position. We have had a 1000 year flood, we have lost our schools (hopefully temporarily) and we are all rushing around trying to find our way, make things right- get back to some semblance of living life again,” Toussieng wrote.
“With all that going on, it is crucial that we keep our financial house in order.”
Toussieng continued, “I have been asked why now. Why would council take this action with everything that we have going on currently?
“My personal response is that this is exactly the action to take now, or anytime there are questionable financial activities. We must as a city act in a responsible fashion. We are dealing with taxpayer money and with jobs in our city. This is the action that would be taken with any employee of the city. It is not personal, it is not punitive, it is demanded of us for complete transparency. I don’t take this task lightly.”
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 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. 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.”
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.”