WILLIAMSON — Mingo County Prosecuting Attorney Jonathan “Duke” Jewell addressed the Williamson City Council on Thursday, Nov. 14, regarding their request for an investigation into Mayor Charlie Hatfield’s ties to the sale and purchase of the old Williamson High School property, for which Hatfield maintains there was no wrongdoing.
On Oct. 10, three members of the council – Randy Price, Sherri Hairston-Brown and Joe Venturino – motioned to have Jewell’s office investigate “how Mayor Charles Hatfield came to claim ownership of property that may belong to the City of Williamson.” The charge was led by Price, who on Sept. 26 contended in a fiery meeting that the property belongs to the city based on a 99-year lease agreement signed in either 1915 or 1916.
The old WHS complex, which closed in June 2011, was auctioned by the Mingo County Commission to Joe and Cheryl Lycan on Oct. 16, 2018, at a winning bid of $800,500. On Oct. 24, 2018, a new business entity was formed in West Virginia called HKL, LLC, which is listed as the current property owner.
HKL, LLC, is an acronym of its four members: Charlie Hatfield, Sam Kapourales and Joe and Cheryl Lycan. The Mingo County Commission conveyed the deed the property to HKL, LLC, at a special meeting Oct. 29, 2018.
The property has had several owners since closing in 2011. In September 2013, the Mingo County Board of Education deeded the property to the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority, and nearly five years later in August 2018, the Mingo County Commission took possession of the property and then sold it in the October auction.
Jewell, who represents the Mingo County Commission as prosecuting attorney, told the council at the Nov. 14 meeting that, by law, he is unable to take any position adverse to the commission. He also said his job is to prosecute crime with criminal intent coupled with criminal conduct, which he does not see in this case.
“You could not convince me or anyone else on this Earth that Mr. Hatfield or any member of that LLC committed any crime,” Jewell said.
Jewell also noted that the 1915 lease Price has repeatedly called into question holds no merit because the lease was signed between the city and the Board of Education of the Independent School District of Williamson, an entity that has not existed since about 1933. Price argued that he thinks the lease agreement isn’t voided due to that fact.
Price then asked Jewell if he might be called as a witness in the event the city files a lawsuit against HKL, LLC, or if criminal charges are brought against Hatfield. Jewell responded that it’s possible, but that he knows no crime was committed.
Hatfield said the lease agreement, which he said was being called a “potential cloud of title” at the time, was discovered during a mortgage search about two months after the auction closed. He said he brought it to the attention of the West Virginia Ethics Commission, city attorney Nathan Brown, the Mingo County Commission and all parties involved — but not the Williamson City Council — and added that none of the parties he brought it to were aware of it beforehand.
“I’ll say for the record, none of us knew it was there, and I’ve said it before, you don’t buy property that has problems like that,” Hatfield said.
Price has repeatedly said that he thinks Hatfield and the other members of HKL, LLC, were possibly aware of the lease agreement before purchasing the property. Hatfield said Price has used the issue to weaponize the media.
“For Randy, it’s been an opportunity for those who influence Randy to enjoy this and get the media here to write stories of sensationalism and whatever to, you know, bring attention to it, which is very sad, but that’s the case it is,” Hatfield said.
Councilwoman Sherri Hairston-Brown then asserted that Hatfield didn’t have the “common courtesy” to tell the city council members about it like he did the other parties, and that they had to find out through rumors. Councilman Joe Venturino agreed.
Jewell spoke again and asked when the city last collected any rent from the property, which is a part of the 1916 lease agreement. He added that he has spoken with multiple former mayors and that all of them said the city never collected any during their tenures.
Former Mayor Darrin McCormick, who served from 2005 to 2014, was asked by Hatfield if rent was ever collected during his time as mayor.
McCormick said he never had knowledge that the city had any ownership of the property, but said it was a “real problem” that Hatfield had knowledge of the lease agreement and didn’t tell council members about it.
Hatfield said he is still “patiently waiting” for the county commission to fix the issue and that he thinks the best way to clear the title is for the city to prepare a deed that conveys what may or may not belong to them. If something is found to belong to the city, under that suggestion, then a certain amount of the proceeds should be split between the city and the county commission.
Hatfield later said that if anyone owns or has an interest in the property, it might be the heirs of the Williamson Mining and Manufacturing Company, which was founded in 1891 and played a part in the founding of the city.
Price then argued with Jewell that the council’s Oct. 10 motion was to investigate the matter, not to prosecute. He said the council has not determined if any crime was committed.
“I still believe that there’s something here, and I’m going to keep digging,” Price said. “We had not, as a governing body, said that a crime was committed. We want to do the investigation and find out. We asked our city attorney (Nathan Brown). He had to recuse himself because he works for you. Williamson is in the county of Mingo. You’re the next option for us. You’re our only option, and if you feel conflicted, there’s options for you.”
“The West Virginia Code says otherwise,” Jewell responded. “No prosecuting attorney is permitted or authorized. We’re in statutory positions. That’s position is governed by West Virginia law. ... They cannot get involved and do, essentially, I guess, civil title work for a city council anywhere. That’s not permitted.”
“Have you conducted an investigation, sir?” McCormick asked from the audience.
Jewell responded that he had not, but that the Oct. 10 motion itself is “fatally flawed and self-defeating” because of its language that says “property that may belong to the City of Williamson.”
“I don’t deal in ‘may,’ “ Jewell said. “I deal in crimes committed and proof submitted beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Jewell also confirmed that he prepared the deed of conveyance for the property to HKL, LLC. without benefit of a title examination.
Hatfield concluded that it’s up to the Mingo County Commission to clear the title because they are the seller.
“So we’re just left out in the cold, in other words,” Hairston-Brown said. “Because he (city attorney Nathan Brown) can’t help us, and you (Jewell) can’t help us, so we’re just s*** out of luck.”
Tonya Webb, who serves as vice president of the board of the Tug Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau, was on the agenda to speak about approval for the CVB’s upcoming Williamson Christmas Kickoff Event from 5-7 p.m. Nov. 30.
“I’ll be honest with you, Mr. Mayor, after this discussion, I don’t know if I have the heart to discuss Christmas at this time. I’m very disappointed in everybody in this room and the way that it’s gone down,” Webb said. “I volunteer a lot of my time to help this city. I’m disappointed in everybody — all the witch hunting, all the name calling — all of this has got to stop, or our city is not going to grow. ... This was never in question 10-15 years ago, but now, all of a sudden, it’s an ordeal? Do you know how hard it is to recruit people to come here when you know that you’re walking down the streets and people are stabbing each other in the back?”
Jarrod Fletcher, another member of the CVB board, spoke about the event instead. The council unanimously approved the CVB to conduct the event in downtown Williamson.