Richwood Mayor Chris Drennen has been indicted on three charges of illegally paying herself and family members with money meant to help the deluged city recover from the June 2016 flood.
Whether others accused of misusing city money or federal flood recovery funds will be indicted is unknown. Also unknown is if indictments will come from a federal grand jury, rather than a state one.
A Nicholas County grand jury indicted Drennen on state charges that were different from the state embezzlement charge she originally faced.
She was charged by the West Virginia State Police in March 2019 and, about a month later, Mike Stuart, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, announced that he had opened an investigation into the state’s handling of millions of dollars in federal flood recovery funds.
“We don’t have any comment,” Deanna Eder, a spokeswoman for Stuart, said regarding the status of that investigation.
Indictments are not findings of guilt, and Nicholas Prosecuting Attorney Jonathan Sweeney stressed that all defendants are innocent until proven guilty in court. When a grand jury hands up indictments, it indicates the grand jury believes there is enough evidence for the accused to face trial.
Drennen did not return requests for comment Wednesday.
There were other Richwood officials charged with her in March 2019. So far, there have been only state charges. Sweeney declined Wednesday to say what’s going on with the other charges.
Former city clerk Abby McClung was charged back then with embezzlement and computer fraud. The first charge was for allegedly using city money to pay herself more than $3,000 in possibly falsified unused vacation time, which Richwood employees don’t get paid for.
The second charge was for allegedly falsifying tax documents to trick state and federal authorities into thinking Richwood had paid them from the money the city took out of its employees’ paychecks.
McClung’s attorney did not return a request for comment Wednesday, but she previously has denied the charges.
Bob Henry Baber, a former mayor, was charged with embezzlement and misuse of a purchasing card. He allegedly paid himself for purported flood recovery work he did before he became mayor.
“We don’t know a thing, honestly,” Baber said Wednesday of where those charges stand.
Former Richwood police chief Allen Cogar also was charged, but a Nicholas magistrate found no probable cause for those charges. Sweeney said the charges won’t progress.
Cogar said people with the West Virginia State Auditor’s Office and others interviewed him shortly after his charges were dismissed, and the questions were mostly about where money went. He said he did not have much information.
Along with these people, there’s the question of what will happen to those who have never been charged but were regardless denounced in a March 2019 State Auditor’s Office report that was published with the arrests. That office did most of the investigating.
Much of the report focused on the Incident Command Structure, a group intended to help Richwood recover from the flood. The report said the ICS became the city’s de facto government.
That government, auditors said, used city funds, without oversight, to pay its leaders and their friends, family and former classmates, expecting reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that might never come.
The two charges of obtaining money by false pretenses that Drennen has been indicted on regard her allegedly being paid through the ICS before the Richwood City Council approved the ICS, as well as after it disbanded. She also faces a fraudulent-schemes charge for her and the ICS’ alleged “excessive payments to themselves and their family members,” the indictment states.
The auditor’s report said Drennen’s sister and her best friend split about $23,000.
However, City Council members, in the wake of Drennen’s March 2019 charge, did not accuse her of receiving pay without their approval — or of any other wrongdoing.
“These are the best charges that could be brought against her,” Sweeney said, “and, frankly, every member of the ICS team that got paid during this time period [before and after the ICS existed], they’re all subject to the same charges, potentially.”