Williamson City Council voted last month to open an investigation into Mayor Charlie Hatfield’s role in the purchase of the old Williamson High School property from the Mingo County Commission after a problem with the property’s title came to light.
The title, from 1916, holds a stipulation that if the property ever stopped being a public school, ownership would revert to the city. The question city council is looking to investigate is whether Hatfield had knowledge of the condition before he, along with business partners who form HKL, LLC, purchased the land at auction last year.
“This wasn’t anything we knew about when we purchased it,” Hatfield said. “I’ve been in real estate a long time. I had no desire to purchase land that had a title issue. No one would if they knew an issue like that existed.”
Council members Randall Price and Sherri Brown brought in outside counsel — Hissam, Foreman, Donovan, Ritchie, PLLC — to research the purchase and history of the property before bringing the issue up in a city council meeting, documented by the Williamson Daily News at the time.
The preliminary investigation into the purchase yielded a report stating that, while there is currently no evidence of blatant criminal conduct, there is a chance that Hatfield, if he knew about the line in the title that would have granted the property back to the city, could have participated in a “fraudulent scheme” by obtaining property through false pretenses and concealing public records.
The report and evidence — including past news reports from the Williamson Daily News, parcel maps of the property, minutes from county commission and city council meetings, and records documenting the property’s past owners — raise several questions: should the property, bought at auction for more than $800,000, really be an asset for the city, and are the owners — namely Hatfield — benefiting monetarily from the property, even though their ownership, legally, is being questioned.
“Like most small towns in West Virginia, Williamson is struggling,” wrote Ryan Donovan, who is representing Price and Brown, in an emailed statement. “My clients have a hard time being asked to cut the budget for law enforcement and first responders while Mayor Hatfield claims ownership of an $800,000 asset that may very well belong to the City.”
The property was purchased by Joe and Cheryl Lycan from the Mingo County Commission in October 2018. Eight days after it was purchased, the Lycans joined with Hatfield and Sam Kapourales to form HKL, LLC, which took over the property.
Until last year, part of the building housed Ambassador Christian Academy, a private Christian school whose use of the property came under fire due to an alleged “sweetheart deal” that had the county paying a majority of its utilities and receiving only $1 in rent. Critics accused the county commission of failing to respect the separation of church and state, saying a government agency should not be responsible for monetarily supporting a religious organization.
ACA announced it would leave the building in May 2018. There were several small nonprofits that would occasionally use the property, however all tenants were notified last October that, due to the sale, they were to vacate, according to minutes from a special session of the Mingo County Commission.
That same meeting, held on Oct. 29, 2018, Hatfield, along with the Lycans, spoke to commissioners about problems that became apparent in the property’s ownership that was “clouding the title.” This lead to closing of the sale being delayed more than the 10 days allowed by code.
At the meeting, county commissioners said Duke Jewell, Mingo County prosecuting attorney, would assist in clarifying the title since the property was auctioned by the county.
Per the property records, most parcels of the high school property went from the Mingo County Board of Education (which held the initial title in question), to the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority (which leased it to ACA), to the Mingo County Commission (which auctioned it to HKL, LLC).
Hatfield announced earlier this year that Campbellsville Christian Academy, based in Kentucky, was interested in taking over the property to open a satellite campus. The West Virginia Council for Community and Technical College Education, at a meeting Oct. 24, approved the school to award associate degrees and certificates. The school plans to offer programs on Christian ministry, cosmetology and barbering, according to a news release from the school.
“The city government, residents, everyone will benefit from having an institution like Campbellsville in that building,” Hatfield said. “The property there before, they weren’t on the tax rolls, there wasn’t any money coming in to help anyone. We didn’t make this acquisition just for ourselves, but to bring something to the city for all of our benefit.”
At the sale last year, Joe Lycan told the Williamson Daily News they hoped to open some sort of for-profit institution in the property. He said there were too many nonprofits within the city limits operating with tax breaks that do not help cover infrastructure improvements or other city expenses.
For city council members in Williamson, concerns don’t spur from the intended plans for the property, but whether these plans are legal in the first place, and whether the city — and its citizens — are losing out on an opportunity to benefit from ownership of at least a portion of the high school property.
Through legal counsel, and through statements given to the Williamson Daily News and at numerous city council meetings, Price has been clear that he and the council are not saying, at this point, that any crimes have been committed. Instead, they want an investigation to ensure that is not the case.
Jewell, the county prosecutor, told the Williamson Daily News last week that some questions persist as to how an investigation would be handled, and he plans to attend the city’s next council meeting, set for Thursday, to ask clarifying questions and hopefully get some answers.
“We want the facts before moving to the next level … I just feel like that property belongs to the City of Williamson, and that’s what we want to know,” Price said at a council meeting last month. “I’m not looking at any criminal activity at this point, but you know, we want to see where this thing goes, and I think the big losers in it all is the City of Williamson.”