Board member calls out BVU for questionable expenses, detective releases new details about criminal investigation
By Nate Morabito, Investigative Reporter - bio | email
BRISTOL, VA (WJHL) -
Bristol Virginia Utilities' mission includes a commitment to provide affordable services to the public, but a BVU board member says BVU's spending habits are outrageous. For the first time, BVU Board Member Doug Fleenor is saying he is the one who alerted the Washington County Sheriff's Office to possible "criminal activity" at BVU.
"I think ethically if you sense there is criminal activity, whether you're on a board serving the public or you see criminal activity or you suspect it, you have an obligation to turn that in to the appropriate authorities," Fleenor said.
The local attorney says he felt obligated last year to alert authorities about possible criminal activity at BVU after viewing pages upon pages of BVU credit card expenses from an eighteen-month period in 2012 and 2013. Fleenor says he came to that decision after spending seven hours reviewing the documents.
"I've been asking for them for numerous years," Fleenor said. "I thought about it and thought about it and reviewed and decided I was going to take it to the sheriff's office in Washington County. I was just so concerned that this is a public utility and these are public employees and if it were a private company and the president or CEO had authorized it, I'd have no problem. This is a public utility, contrary to some people's opinion and how they run it."
Fleenor says among the things that concern him is the fact that BVU employees, without board approval, have taken it upon themselves to satisfy their personal needs on the customers' dime.
"I would almost be willing to bet you (customers) will be almost as offended, as upset as I was," Fleenor said. "If people don't put a stop to it, then the graft, the abuse, and I believe this is abuse, continues."
According to Fleenor, there are several questionable expenses.
"There is one employee in particular who has numerous Starbucks charges," Fleenor said. "Numerous charges placed on BVU (credit card), Starbucks, Chick-fil-A. To me it's ludicrous and outrageous."
He's also quick to list off multiple high dollar meals for employees.
"I think there was a bill for Outback for $3,500 that supposedly was because they exceeded their safety standards," Fleenor said.
He says employees also spent hundreds of dollars at The Troutdale.
"I can't afford to go to Troutdale," Fleenor said. "I guarantee the rate payers and so forth and the people in the city can't afford to go to Troutdale."
Fleenor also mentions a pizza party last year following the surprising resignation of BVU's longtime CEO.
"After he left and resigned they called in a Pizza Plus order for all the employees to celebrate him being gone," Fleenor said. "$1,600 plus."
Since news broke of the Washington County, Virginia, Sheriff's Office's investigation into BVU back in November, authorities and board members haven't said much. Now, for the first time, the senior detective on the case is releasing new details about the investigation.
"Several hundred man-hours have been invested into this case," WCSO Senior Detective James Blevins said. "Primarily, for the last six months my time has been devoted to this case alone."
Blevins calls the BVU investigation the most consuming financial investigation of his 16-year investigative career. According to Blevins, its scope is broad.
"Currently, it's still ongoing," he said. "It involves multiple people within the organization and the organization itself."
Among the things under investigation, according to Blevins, are several months' worth of credit card expenses now secured in his office in boxes.
"I've looked at credit card records for a several month period, credit cards that were issued to employees for certain purposes," Blevins said. "What is questionable is what activities took place on those credit card accounts. Why were they used for certain purchases? That's what I'm looking at."
Blevins says he can't release a timetable for when the investigation will wrap up.
"It is a very lengthy investigation that involves a lot of research and a lot of documents to go through," Blevins said. "I expect that I would take my findings, present them to the Commonwealth and then we go forward from there and decide as to what actions to take before the courts, if any. If probable cause exists that charges be placed against individuals then we go forward from there."
Fleenor believes the investigation will uncover several more questions.
"That's the tip of the iceberg," Fleenor said. "When rate payers, people who pay the bills, are paying these charges and so forth, potentially, that's not appropriate and it's unfair and someone needs to stop it. If it turns out nothing criminal, fine. It's still inappropriate."
Other board members aren't saying nearly as much.
"We don't know (the status)," BVU Board Member Jim Rector said of the investigation. "They have not told us anything."
The board chairwoman also wouldn't say much.
"I have no idea what the investigation will show," Faith Esposito said when asked if BVU had spent its money in the public's best interest. "We are waiting and cooperating."
BVU General Counsel Walt Bressler declined to comment.
"We have no comment on the investigation," Bressler said.
As for customers, Vanessa Tester says for now she is standing behind BVU.
"They have helped me with everything that I've had a problem with," Tester said. "I can trust them. I think people have been treated fair here, I really do."
However, she says that could change depending on what detectives discover.
"I would have to see it to believe it, because, they've been great to me," Tester said. "(If it's true) it would bother me. I don't think anyone should take advantage of anybody."