Ex-Parkersburg official’s charges led to card block

PARKERSBURG, W.Va. — A woman dismissed as the city’s finance director this week apparently used a municipal purchasing card for nearly $300 of personal purchases in November, causing a hold to be placed on the card, according to documents obtained Thursday by The Parkersburg News and Sentinel.

Ex-Finance Director Ashley Flowers’ attorney, Ben Salango, said the purchases were made in error, reported by Flowers and promptly repaid.

“Miss Flowers’ personal credit card and the city P-card look almost identical,” Salango said. “She accidentally used the P-card, realized her mistake, self-reported the incident to the (state) auditor’s office.”

Flowers had been on paid leave following her Feb. 11 arrest on two felony counts of child endangerment. Before that, she’d come under fire due to allegations of an affair with then-Mayor Bob Newell and related misuse of public funds.

Flowers admitted to the affair, but said she’d broken no laws. Newell neither confirmed nor denied the affair, but also said no laws were broken.

City Council members and citizens have questioned posting errors in financial records, with some council members saying Flowers should be replaced. Newell said no money was missing.

Mayor Jimmy Colombo, appointed last week by council to fill the unexpired mayoral term after Newell retired June 3, terminated Flowers Monday after reviewing information about the situation.

On Thursday, City Attorney Joe Santer denied a request for a copy of Flowers’ termination letter, citing state code that exempts records from release if they constitute “an unreasonable invasion of privacy.”

The termination letter “contains substantial information of a personal and private nature which if disclosed would likely cause unnecessary injury and embarrassment to her,” Santer’s response says.

The city provided copies of documents from Flowers’ personnel file and multiple financial records, including those dealing with the personal purchases on Nov. 25 and 26, 2014.

Flowers spent $294.70 at Sephora, H&M, Express and Fit2Run stores in Tampa, Fla., according to the card statement provided by the city. The next day, an email was sent from a United Bank employee notifying multiple individuals, at least one of whom works for the West Virginia Auditor’s Office, which administers the P-card program, that the account had been blocked, citing those and other purchases.

An email from an employee in the auditor’s office’s Local Government Purchasing Card Division asked Flowers to verify the charges. Flowers responded, saying her personal card looks similar to the city one.

“I was Christmas shopping and didn’t realize for a second that I had put this card in my pocket to use!!” the email says.

“I am currently driving home now to WV and when we return to office Monday will have the documentation and a check to pay it back,” she continues. “Sorry for the error! How embarrassing!!”

Also included in the records provided by the city are receipts for the purchases and a copy of the reimbursement check written by Flowers and dated Dec. 2, the Tuesday after the purchases were made.

Salango said Flowers was told by the auditor’s office the mistake was not uncommon.

“She was never reprimanded; there were no problems with it; and no one brought it up until recently,” Salango said. “It was never a big deal. It certainly wasn’t any grounds for termination.”

Asked whether that incident, coupled with other documents showing instances where receipts were not turned in and verification had to come from the mayor or someone else, could be considered grounds for termination, Salango said if that was the case, Flowers would have been dismissed before now.

“I suspect if they ever believed that Miss Flowers was ever abusing the P-card or mishandling money, they would have terminated her immediately,” he said.

Colombo declined to elaborate on the reasons for Flowers’ termination, saying only they dealt with on-the-job actions and not her criminal charges, which have not yet been addressed in court. Asked whether he thought it was proper for an employee to have a city P-card while on vacation, he said, “I don’t think that would be normal.”

“I thought that was really questionable,” Colombo said.

In May, Salango filed a claim against the city, saying Flowers was threatened with termination by Newell and faced retaliation for confirming the affair.

“There has not been a resolution of the claim, and we’re still weighing our options,” he said.

Salango has previously said they were considering potential legal action against the city and Newell, but he was optimistic the situation could be resolved without going to court.

Colombo has said he expects a lawsuit to be filed, but he feels he and the city have acted properly.

Additional analysis of documents provided by the city will appear in Saturday’s edition of the News and Sentinel.

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