Drennen pleads not guilty; trial date set for late-August

SUMMERSVILLE, W.Va. — The former mayor of Richwood pleaded not guilty Monday to three felony criminal counts during an arraignment in Nicholas County Circuit Court.

Chris Drennen

Chris Drennen was recently indicted on two counts of obtaining money under false pretenses and one count of committing fraudulent schemes in connection with how her office handled flood recovery money from the federal government following the 2016 flood.

Drennen pleaded not guilty to the charges during a brief court hearing Monday morning in Summersville. Her trial was scheduled for Aug. 25. There will be a pretrial hearing on July 24.

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 served as mayor until last week when the recently elected Gary Johnson was sworn-in to office. She remains free on $10,000 personal recognizance bond.

MetroNews Statewide Correspondent Brad McElhinny contributed to this story. 

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