PARKERSBURG, W.Va. — Mayor Bob Newell came out swinging at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, and a motion to fund a forensic audit of certain city finances failed in a 4-4 tie.
Speaking before nearly 100 people in council chambers, Newell said the anonymously distributed flash drives that led to allegations of an affair between him and Finance Director Ashley Flowers and related ethics violations and misuse of money “contained altered and added text.”
“Interviews have already uncovered witnesses who (have) described the fake emails being manufactured, the fake text messages being created to make it appear that they came from different phones,” he said.
After the meeting, Newell declined to say from where he got that information.
Newell said one individual obtained Flowers’ personal photos and notes under false pretense “just for the sake of avenging a failed election.”
The mayor did not mention a specific name during the meeting, but later Tuesday evening, when asked who he was referring to, said, “Absolutely. Rick Modesitt, yes.”
Modesitt is a former city police chief, Wood County commissioner and member of the West Virginia House of Delegates who lost to Newell in the 2005 mayoral election. Modesitt could not immediately be reached for comment late Tuesday night.
Earlier this month, after Newell released letters asking the Wood County prosecutor and U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia to look into Modesitt’s alleged involvement with the flash drives, Modesitt said in an email he had turned the matter over to his attorney for review.
Flowers has admitted to the affair but denied breaking any laws. Newell has not addressed the affair but said investigations by the West Virginia Ethics Commission and State Police will prove there was no wrongdoing.
Newell addressed a portion of his executive message to the individuals holding signs and calling for council to remove him from office at recent meetings.
“Quit wasting the time of City Council,” he said.
That led to a chorus of groans, gasps and jeers from the crowd, several of whom were holding signs demanding a forensic audit and stickers saying Newell should resign.
Council President J.R. Carpenter called for order and told those in attendance they needed to let the mayor finish before they had their turn to speak in the public forum. Newell said there was nothing in the city code, charter or state constitution that allows council to remove the mayor or the mayor to remove a member of council.
He said they should wait for the proper authorities to conduct their investigations.
Newell said many of those who have spoken out at council meetings are not residents of the city, previously opposed the user fee, are from Ohio or have political axes to grind against him.
During the public forum, several people took issue with the mayor’s remarks.
“I’m sorry that the mayor thinks I’m wasting City Council’s time. I don’t,” said Parkersburg resident Kendi Farr. “For that to be alluded to is a slap in the face. And totally irresponsible.”
Several people asked council to fund a proposed $8,600 forensic audit. But that resolution failed in a 4-4 tie.
Councilwoman Kim Coram, a proponent of the audit, would have been the deciding vote, but she left the chambers prior to the action and returned after it was over.
Asked after the meeting why she left, Coram said she didn’t want the audit to become embroiled in an ethics complaint.
“I spoke to the Ethics Commission about it. They said I could vote on it,” she said. “But they recommended I recuse myself.”
Coram said she got that advice before she learned Newell had filed a complaint against her with the Ethics Commission, in part due to the audit’s focus on the Municipal Building Commission and Coram’s connection to a business that leases space from that group.
Councilman Jim Reed, who was among the Finance Committee members who unanimously referred the issue to council, said he reconsidered.
“There’s a lot of investigation going on already, and I’m not sure what was proposed was what we need to do,” he said.
Reed said the audit would only have examined a handful of budget line items. It was not immediately clear Tuesday night what those line items would have been.
Reed noted Newell has requested two forensic audits related to the allegations against him.
Christi Middleton Walcutt, a member of the Committee group circulating petitions to have Newell’s fitness for office reviewed by a three-judge panel, said she was disappointed the audit didn’t pass.
“I’m very disappointed mostly in the timing of the ethics complaint against Ms. Coram, which seems to be orchestrated,” she said.
Carpenter said he wasn’t giving up on the audit.
“The audit requested (would) explain why there were some small errors that went through the administration and were seen by council,” he said.
Coram and Carpenter have said the audit request was not triggered by allegations about the mayor and finance director.
The proposed 2015-16 municipal budget passed 5-4, with Lynch, Reed, Councilwoman Nancy Wilcox and Councilman John Rockhold opposed.
Reed and Lynch said they opposed it because of revisions voted for by the other five council members at the March 11 budget hearing. Those revisions placed money for training, travel, auto and liability insurance and capital equipment in contingency funds that cannot be accessed without council approval. City Attorney Joe Santer had recommended the revisions not be approved.