(08/12/2006)
"If they get out of this, we ought to run them for governor." - QUOTE OF THE DAY

By Bob Weaver

Most West Virginians are aware of the alleged transgressions of Wyoming County senior center director Bob Graham, whose income shot to nearly $500,000.

It was a situation brought to light by a news reporter, not revealed by agency employees, board members, politicos or members of the WV Legislature, who should have had some oversight.

Certainly Sen. Billy Wayne Bailey didn't spill the beans, since he was employed by the center, and vowed to stick by his man and keep getting lots of Budget Digest money flowing.

The 60-year-old Graham is now accused of embezzling more than $356,000 from his agency, with a 39-count federal indictment for mail fraud, filing false tax returns and engaging in illegal banking transactions.

During his trial, it was revealed that Graham paid for the breast implants of his favorite stripper, enjoyed lap dances at Southern Exposure, took lavish vacations, drove luxury cars and had his personal tanning bed, all on the company (taxpayers) tab.

Now the problem is being blamed on the old people who were on the Wyoming County's senior board. Prosecutors said Graham manipulated the elderly women and persuaded them to approve his lucrative contract year after year.

Manipulating old people on the senior center board is a scenario familiar to Calhoun County citizens.

Now we're told, WV has issued better oversight, salary caps and control over board membership.

Most senior citizen directors in WV receive salaries of $40,000 or less, and do their job ethically, like Calhoun's COA Mike Ritchie.

But some make a lot more. Information is difficult to obtain because senior centers are private non-profits, their books are not open to the public, although senior services are almost exclusively supported by taxpayer money.

A senior center director in Hardy County, often favored by House Finance Chairman Harold Michael, is one whose salary, according to a former employee is "up there," but whose career has reportedly been validated by a mail-order college diploma hanging on her office wall.

One could nervously look at the administrative costs of the Lincoln County senior center, indicating the center has "low units of service," or in simpler terms, services not being delivered to the senior population, with administrators getting some really big bucks.

Though the Lincoln County situation has become public, heads have turned the other way.

THE CALHOUN CASE

In Calhoun, State Police said in 2002 that CCCOA director Judy Hartshorn would not be prosecuted, although she "took full advantage of the very people she was entrusted to help," according to Sgt. John Bonazzo of the State Police.

Hartshorn's problems remain only allegations, made public in a State Police press release.

Bonazzo told the Herald his agency concluded an investigation on behalf of the local senior citizens. "The FBI was contacted and has concurred with the results of this investigation," he said. The investigation revealed extensive internal mismanagement by Hartshorn and oversight problems with the elderly Board.

He said much of the mismanagement by Hartshorn "could easily be construed as criminal, but failed to reach the high standards required by the criminal justice system for a successful prosecution. This can largely be attributed to the fact that much of the Director's actions were done with the tacit approval or oversight of the Board of Directors."

Mike Ritchie, then the newly appointed Director of CCCOA, said his Board had left it up to the State Police to proceed with charges against Hartshorn.

"We want to be about the future of the center," he said. "We are working hard at doing the right things for this community."

The State Police report concluded there was an accountability problem. Many of the problems uncovered could have been prevented had the Board of Directors at the time exercised more control over daily operations, including the activities of director Hartshorn.

Locally, Hartshorn's problems first came to light after a series of published stories by the late Susan Starr, then a reporter for the Calhoun Chronicle.

Starr told the Herald "For reasons I never understood, the police didn't want to move the case on, saying they didn't have enough help, like accountants."

Hartshorn resigned her position in April, 1999, in the midst of allegations of misuse of center funds. She first offered to step down to a lesser position, then tendered her resignation to the 12-member board.

Bonazzo said another main factor prohibiting successful prosecution was that statue of limitations had expired on many of the uncovered discrepancies.

He said "Many of the former director's actions were not uncovered until recently when the criminal investigation was initiated, which in some cases was two or three years after the fact."

Hartshorn had been accused of using materials purchased for a new addition to the Grantsville's center in the construction of a new home on Pleasant Hill, among other abuses of the agencies equipment and funds.

Hartshorn, according to earlier reports, leveraged a retirement program from the center, which the center could still be footing, much like Wyoming County's Graham.

Graham accumulated $300,000 worth of retirement assets, which have now been frozen, meaning that the state could recoup some of the funds following the outcome of his embezzlement trial.

After hearing testimony and the defense's motion for an acquittal, one observer quipped angrily, "If they let him out of this, we ought to run him for governor."

Graham could face up to $5 million in fines and 112 years in prison.

Hartshorn was slapped with a few harsh words by the WV State Police.


Hur Herald ©from Sunny Cal
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