The mayor of Richwood has been indicted on three felony fraud charges, alleging she improperly profited from the town’s flood relief effort.
The three charges resulted from grand jury deliberations in Nicholas County.
A lawyer for Mayor Chris Drennen said she had no comment on Tuesday evening.
Drennen was among three Richwood officials arrested March 29, 2019, on charges relating to the city’s use of millions of dollars in federal flood relief money. But since then, the allegations went quiet.
Speaking to reporters at Magistrate Court at the time, Drennen declared her innocence.
“All I’m saying is I’m innocent of the charges that are being proffered against me,” she said in 2019. “Any pay that I received, Council was very well aware of, and that’s what I’m being accused of.”
Richwood’s Council initially asked for Drennen’s resignation the evening of her arrest, but members backed off shortly after that and Drennen continued in the job up to now.
The charges were an outgrowth of an investigation by the state Auditor’s Office Public and Integrity and Fraud Unit, which looked into Richwood’s finances for more than a year.
The agency was trying to determine what happened to at least $3 million in federal funding that was supposed to help Richwood recovery from a devastating flood that washed away much of the town on June 23, 2016.
Leaders of the lumber town of about 2,000 people put thousands of dollars of grant money into their own pockets by hiring themselves, friends or family members for paid flood-relief positions, according to the report.
An Incident Command System, with a core of three local leaders, used “unfettered discretion” to hire themselves, friends and family and spent city money without approval, causing payroll to nearly triple in the six months after the flood, according to the Auditor’s report.
The leaders of the Incident Command System were identified as former Mayor Jeromy Rose, his friend Jon Cox, who relocated from Colorado to help with flood relief, and Drennen, who had recently been elected as city recorder.
They put together a team of 23 people who were paid $468,455 in wages. The Federal Emergency Management Agency had not approved or paid any of the payroll.
“While the original intent of an ICS may have been good-intentioned, it quickly became an opportunity that was exploited by the three leaders of the Richwood ICS,” the Auditor’s Office wrote.
“The excessive size of the ICS was unnecessary, and the excessive amount of money paid to hand-selected friends and family members detracted from any semblance of a legitimate, workable organization.”
Rose, Cox and Drennen also took on salaries for their ICS roles. The three leaders together drew $217,825.24 in gross pay, according to the Auditor’s report.
Drennen, who started serving as mayor when her predecessor, Bob Henry Baber was forced from office, was paid $45,179.61 for her ICS work. That was in addition to her compensation as recorder, which paid $400 a month.
Drennen also served as chairwoman of the town government’s Finance Committee. So she oversaw finances and paychecks. On many of the payments to herself, according to the original allegations, Drennen signed the check.
Two charges that were filed this week accused Drennen of “obtaining money, property or services by false pretenses” by serving as recorder while also benefiting financially from the separate role on the Incident Command Team.
That came to the detriment, the charges contend, of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the citizens of Richwood and the Municipality of Richwood.
The third charge alleges Drennen committed fraudulent schemes with members of the Incident Command Team that “inhibited the City of Richwood from recovering from the flood to the benefit of herself and others.”
Below is a draft of the indictment against Drennen.
WCHS-TV, which first reported on today’s charges against Drennen, interviewed Nicholas County Prosecutor Jonathan Sweeney, who told reporter Bob Aaron that Drennen faces prison time of one to 10 years on each count.
Aaron asked if more charges might result against others who have been implicated.
“Is the book still open on this thing?” Aaron asked.
“The books are still open,” Sweeney responded, shaking his head and looking at the camera.
“Is the federal government still involved?” Aaron followed up.
“Yes,” said the prosecutor.