WESTOVER, W.Va. — Allegations of corruption, a police department divided, and hidden agendas have come to light after an audio recording of a meeting involving several Westover officials was recently posted online.
The over 90-minute meeting that involved former Westover Police Chief Rick Panico, Lt. John Morgan, Westover city attorney Tim Stranko and Westover City Councilman Steve Andryzcik took place in September 2020. The meeting came on the heels of Panico’s resignation and the release of a letter signed by 11 Westover Police officers calling for the removal of Officer Aaron Dalton for a number of abuses of power.
“This needs to be investigated and we need to find the truth and let the chips fall where they may,” said Westover City Councilman Ralph Mullins said on WAJR’s Talk of the Town.
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“What is to me as every bit as disturbing as the accusations against our mayor, is the fact that a city attorney and city councilman purposely decided not to inform council of these accusations against the mayor. How can we do our job if this type of information is being hidden from us?”
While Mullins was aware of the meeting, he contends the accusations against Mayor Dave Johnson that were made during the meeting were never communicated to city council.
The conversation during the meeting was mostly focused on the conduct of Mayor Johnson and his relationship with Officer Aaron Dalton. Pancio and Morgan described concerns that Mayor Johnson subverted the chain of command within the police department and created an environment that made it impossible to hold Dalton accountable for his actions.
Dalton is facing multiple lawsuits over civil rights violations and more accusations came to light in the meeting, including claims that Dalton had sexual intercourse with a woman while on duty and later was harassing her. Pancio claimed in the meeting that Mayor Johnson told him to “make it go away.”
Pancio also shared concerns he had when the mayor requested Dalton directly under him on parking enforcement. Panico was worried there would be no oversight in such a situation, to which he said Johnson replied “let me worry about that.”
A picture was painted of a department in disarray with officers who refused to work with Dalton because of his conduct while Dalton seemed to operate with a sense of immunity because of his relationship with Mayor Johnson.
“Dalton was actually giving commands to the officers. Officers were going through their chain of command ‘why is Dalton coming around telling me to go home, stand down, don’t be here?'” said Panico.
Other incidents included Dalton making racists remarks to coworkers in an attempt to provoke a response out of them, according to Pancio, as well as threatening to sexually assault other officers just to demonstrate his power over them.
However, Councilman Andryzcik, who was part of the Sept. 2020 meeting, asserts there are hidden agendas that have played a role in the allegations toward the mayor.
“I do know this, all three of those people have agendas,” claimed Andryzcik on WAJR, referring to Panico, Morgan and Mullins.
“Rick and Dave did not get along. They locked horns about a lot things. Rick resented all those things. Morgan was our interim chief, he’s upset because he didn’t get the full-time chief job. Mullins has expressed to me and others he’s considering running for mayor.”
While everyone involved in the meeting appeared to disapprove of Dalton’s actions, there was less agreement on how to proceed forward. City Attorney Tim Stranko raised concerns over the city’s imagine a losing the public’s trust seeming to take issue with the letter signed by 11 officers in the department and Panico’s resignation letter.
“This memo and your resignation letter are seriously detrimental to that,” Stanko said. “The route I hope we take in the future is less formal, less writing.”
Since that meeting, Panico officially resigned. A year later, Dalton remains on paid administrative leave and has filed an injunction against the city of Westover, claiming his employment rights are being violated.