By Paul Fallon
Charleston Daily Mail
KANAWHA COUNTY, W. Va. — A Kanawha County commissioner says the chief of the Chesapeake Volunteer Fire Department, his father and other board members should step down to restore credibility to the organization.
Commissioner Dave Hardy called the fire department's accounting practices into question in late 2011, when the fire department failed to pay a fuel bill.
Hardy learned the department had grossed about $4.2 million from bingo and raffle from the beginning of 2009 to the end of 2010. He called for an audit of Chesapeake's records, and the agency has yet to fully comply.
"They still haven't provided us with everything we wanted," Hardy said.
Hardy believes the agency's fire chief, P.J. Johnson, and his father, Steve Johnson, who is a department board member, should both step down.
"I'm only speaking for myself, but they have no credibility with me," he said.
Hardy thinks other board members should step down as well because they failed to cooperate with the county audit.
The fire department did not provide requested documents to the legislative auditor's office until after it was threatened with the loss of state funding.
"From my observation, there appears to be no oversight by this board," he added. "It's clear to me that the board isn't doing its job and they need to step down."
Both P.J. and Steve Johnson collect salaries from either the department or one of the three businesses it operates.
P.J. Johnson's salary is about $56,000 per year. The father receives about $30,000 a year for services provided to Communication Services Inc., a for-profit communications equipment company owned by the fire department.
The fire department's unwillingness to cooperate with the county audit prompted the state legislative auditor's office to review the books, said Stacy Sneed, director of the Legislative Post Audits Division.
The state agency requested documentation pertaining to all state funds allocated to the fire department during calendar year 2011, she said. The department did not respond.
The request for documentation was made on July 5, Sneed said.
"They just ignored us," she said. "They didn't give us any response as to why they wouldn't provide us with the information."
The lack of cooperation prompted legislative auditor Aaron Allred to tell West Virginia Treasurer John Perdue to withhold all state money from the fire department on Jan. 2.
Fire departments around the state receive some of the revenue generated by a 0.5 percent surcharge on fire and casualty insurance premiums. The Chesapeake department was to receive about $12,000 from the insurance surcharge during the first quarter of this year, Sneed said.
The state agency informed fire department officials that the money would be withheld. The fire department then provided the Legislative Auditor's Office with the documentation needed on Jan. 9, Sneed said.
"We haven't had a chance to look at the records yet," she said.
Auditors will review the records and decide whether the funds should be released.
The fire department is required to submit only documentation outlining expenditures of state funds, Sneed said. The state auditor does not look at bingo and raffle proceeds.
P.J. Johnson did say the fire department had provided financial documents to the auditor's office. However, he would not comment as to why it took so long to do so.
He would also not comment on Hardy's statements that he and department board members should step down from their positions. The fire department's board told other officials not to discuss the matter, he said.
Steve Johnson did not return calls seeking comment.
It is uncommon for fire departments to fail to provide the required documentation to the auditor's office, Sneed said. In fact, the auditor's office requested information from 22 fire departments this year.
Only two, Chesapeake and Grant Town in Marion County, failed to provide the required information, she said.
The Grant Town mayor was charged with embezzling funds from the fire department in November. The Marion County fire department has now provided the financial information to the state office, Sneed said.
The Chesapeake department has never refused to provide financial information to the state office in the past, she said. In fact, the state office audited the department's financial records in 2006, Sneed said.
"And they got a clean audit," she said.
Sneed said failing to provide the needed financial documents causes a "red flag to go up."
"It makes us wonder what they're hiding," she said.
Commission President Kent Carper also wants the fire department to provide the financial documents the county requested.
Carper said department officials' behavior on the matter "was uncalled for."
The state Treasurer's Office will not distribute any more funds to any fire department until the start of the second quarter in April, Sneed said. She thinks the state office will have completed reviewing the department's financial records by that time.
If misuse of funds is found, then the state agency can forward the records to the county prosecuting attorney and recommend an investigation be launched, Sneed said.
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