|By Eric Eyre|
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A former state official and a West Virginia State University administrator took part in an elaborate scheme to conceal the misappropriation of a $100,000 federal grant awarded to a Cross Lanes publishing firm, according to a search warrant affidavit unsealed late Wednesday.
Mary Jane Bowling, who resigned as grants manager at the state Workforce West Virginia office earlier this month, and Christine Gardner, who runs WVSU's Economic Development Center in Charleston, "illegally influenced the distribution of the grant, then set about to cover up their misdeeds," the affidavit filed by the FBI alleges.
The alleged cover-up included falsifying documents, forged signatures, fake invoices, backdating a $5,000 check and pressuring others to lie about the grant payments.
A federal grand jury is investigating the $100,000 grant awarded to Comar Inc., which publishes MetroValley magazine. The grand jury next meets Aug. 18.
Gardner received $5,000 from the grant, and deposited the money into a joint bank account she holds with Bowling. The two share the same Cross Lanes address.
Another $5,000 from the grant went to Mandi Felty, the girlfriend of Bowling's son, Martin Bowling, former chief technical officer at Comar.
In July 2008, Felty allegedly questioned the payment, telling Martin Bowling she hadn't done any work on the grant.
Bowling responded that Comar CEO Albert Hendershot wanted to pay him for "his involvement in obtaining the $100,000 grant," the affidavit states.
Felty deposited the $5,000 check into a bank account she shares with Martin Bowling.
The elaborate cover-up started after The Charleston Gazette published a series of articles that raised questions about the grant, according to the 20-page affidavit filed under seal last May.
In late March, Mary Jane Bowling and Gardner repeatedly pressured Felty to sign paperwork that said she worked as a consultant on the grant, according to the affidavit. The document was backdated to July 2008. Felty initially refused, but "reluctantly" signed the falsified "contractor's agreement."
"Christine Gardner informed Mandi Felty that if she did not sign the paperwork, Albert Hendershot was not going to give her Martin Bowling's last paycheck," the affidavit states. "Christine Gardner added that everybody was going to get in trouble if Mandi Felty did not sign the paperwork."
A short time later, Mary Jane Bowling allegedly told Felty that Workforce West Virginia had directed Felty and Gardner to return the $5,000.
Felty told Gardner that she didn't have the money, so Bowling told her she would give her the $5,000. After a series of bank transactions, Felty and Bowling obtained a $5,000 cashier's check made payable to Comar.
Gardner then gave the check, which was backdated to December 2008, to Hendershot, according to the affidavit.
"Felty related that Christine Gardner told Hendershot to inform Workforce West Virginia auditors that she had paid back the $5,000 in December 2008, prior to the allegations of wrongdoing reported by the Charleston Gazette," the affidavit says.
After Felty learned she was a target of the federal investigation, Mary Jane Bowling told Felty to lie about the check and not mention Bowling's name, the affidavit says. Gardner also called Felty and told her to say that the consulting work was done and Felty was paid.
During the investigation, the FBI also discovered allegedly falsified "invoices" submitted by Gardner and Felty to Comar for payment. Investigators also determined that signatures from Gardner and Felty on consulting agreements given to Comar didn't match the women's signatures on budget documents the company previously gave to Workforce West Virginia.
"It appears that no work was performed," an FBI agent wrote in the affidavit.
Gardner also later apparently tried to deceive her superiors at WVSU's Extension Service about her work on the grant, according to the affidavit.
"The investigation has revealed that Christine Gardner obtained a letter from Albert Hendershot that advised [she] did not work on the Comar grant proposal during her normal work hours at West Virginia State University," the affidavit states.
In the filing, federal investigators also allege that Mary Jane Bowling went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that Comar received the $100,000 grant last year.
At one point, Bowling personally completed a major portion of Comar's grant request evaluation form, the affidavit says.
Former Workforce West Virginia Executive Director Ron Radcliff told investigators that he initially rejected Comar's grant application.
Bowling was "angry" about the decision, and persuaded an agency superior, Stephen Dailey, to ask Radcliff to reconsider. Bowling and Dailey also met privately with Radcliff, who subsequently changed his mind and awarded the $100,000 grant to Comar.
Bowling then hand-delivered Comar's first grant payment, which included $5,000 checks for Gardner and Felty, according to the affidavit.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Mary E. Stanley unsealed the affidavit Wednesday after the Gazette notified the U.S. Attorney's Office that it planned to file a motion to examine the document.
FBI Special Agent James Lafferty filed the affidavit to establish grounds for a search warrant amid the investigation.
State and federal authorities searched Gardner's and Mary Jane Bowling's house in Cross Lanes in May. The search warrant does not say whether any documents or computers were seized.
Last week, federal prosecutors charged Martin Bowling in an information with embezzling federal funds in excess of $1,000 while he worked at Comar.
An information can't be filed without a defendant's permission, and generally indicates that the defendant is cooperating with the government.
The Bowlings and Gardner have repeatedly declined to comment on the investigation. Hendershot could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.
Reach Eric Eyre at email@example.com or 304-348-4869.