Hawkins coverage led to action

Former Barbour County Sheriff John Hawkins recently told an Inter-Mountain reporter our publication would be the first to know if and when he resigned. His flippant answer was in response to whether he still was on the job when we checked in with him amid rumors last week he no longer was the head lawman in the county.

Those rumors had some truth, because Hawkins was required to resign his position as part of a plea deal in federal court Thursday. He admitted guilt to mail fraud- a crime that carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

As part of that deal, the federal prosecutor agreed not to pursue “other investigations into the conduct of Hawkins, including his alleged mishandling of an estate in his official capacity as sheriff, allegations of missing funds from the sheriff’s tax office, and potential civil rights violations.”

Well, Hawkins may not have kept his word about telling us his fate, but The Inter-Mountain certainly keeps ours. We make a commitment to bring readers news not only first, but also best through our in-depth, comprehensive coverage of issues affecting our region.

That’s exactly what we have done with regard to Hawkins and his string of recent legal woes. While Hawkins’ court appearance on Thursday may have come as a surprise, he’s made our headlines since May 2012. That’s when a then 18-year-old Brittany Mae Keene of Philippi filed a domestic violence protection order petition against Hawkins.

Keene told The Inter-Mountain she filed the petition because the sheriff threatened to have her indicted, and also threatened her with death, if she spoke publicly about an alleged sexual relationship between them. In the petition, Keene claimed she and Hawkins dated and were “sexual partners.” She also alleged Hawkins “raped” her in July 2011.

Keene wrote in the petition Hawkins “recently told me my body would be the next found at Arden.” The small community of Arden in Barbour County has over the years been the site of several human remains discoveries, as well as multiple drownings. Maybe Keene’s concerns are more valid than some initially thought. Apparently Hawkins has some experience staging an “accident.”

“Hawkins admitted to staging an automobile accident in April of 2013 and then, with the assistance of one of his deputies, fabricating a report. ,” according to a press release issued Thursday by U.S. Attorney William J. Ihlenfeld II of the Northern District of West Virginia.

Ihlenfeld also was quoted in the release as stating, “By abusing the authority of his position, Sheriff Hawkins violated the trust that the citizens of Barbour County placed in him when he was elected.”

Interesting. Keene also alleges multiple abuses of authority by Hawkins. There are rules governing prior bad acts and their admission as evidence in court proceedings. We wonder what impact, if any, Thursday’s admission of guilt will have on other legal cases – either ones pending now or that could be filed in the future – against Hawkins.

With regard to legal cases, The Inter-Mountain normally would not name an alleged victim of sexual assault. However, when Keene contacted The Inter-Mountain more than 18 months ago, she asked to be identified. She was seeking a voice she felt had been silenced at nearly every turn.

She was frustrated the legal system and others in the community, including elected officials, weren’t taking her accusations seriously. The Inter-Mountain was the first to report the story and has diligently followed it ever since.

In May 2012, Keene was indicted on one felony count of receiving stolen property and two misdemeanor counts of transferring stolen property. Though those charges later were dismissed, we believe our coverage has helped to fuel investigations into Hawkins and his alleged misuse of power as sheriff. We also believe our coverage resulted in other officials in the judicial process – Barbour County Prosecuting Attorney Leckta Poling and Circuit Judge Alan D. Moats – voluntarily recusing themselves from the criminal case involving Keene.

In a press release at the time, Poling stated she recused herself to “maintain the integrity of the court system and confidence of the public in these matters due to a perceived appearance of impropriety raised publicly in the Elkins Inter-Mountain by the defendant, Brittany Mae Keene.”

Poling had known connections to Keene and Hawkins, even taking Keene’s original statement alleging the abuse by the sheriff. However, Poling didn’t recuse herself until after our story. Further, Keene indicated our coverage helped her secure an attorney, the same one who successfully argued the charges in her indictment should be dismissed.

Perhaps the glare of the public spotlight may have helped those involved to see this case more clearly. All we know is it kept the public informed, and that’s the way it should be. The only side we are on is ensuring full public disclosure of government action – or inaction as it would appear with regard to some parts of these multiple investigations into Hawkins.

Keene still has a pending civil suit against him. That suit alleges other victims, named only as Females No. 1-5, also experienced some type of sexual abuse by the sheriff. No criminal charges have been filed to date against Hawkins in connection to those allegations. Hawkins is presumed innocent or not liable unless proven otherwise, except with regard to his guilty plea that he entered on the fraud charges Thursday.

The Inter-Mountain, to date, has chosen not to lend our editorial voice to these issues as they have played out in the courts. Rather, we have chosen to do our job of reporting news and asking tough questions. Some people, Hawkins included, have made it known they didn’t like those questions being asked by or appearing in our paper.

That didn’t stop us then, and it won’t stop us now from investigating reports of impropriety and possible violations of public trust. Newspapers are keepers of the public interest, but elected officials are charged with that task as well. At the end of the day, we have to question who did that job with regard to these cases. Who should have been asking the questions? And why did anyone want to remain silent or silence others?

When we get those answers, we will publish them. And, yes, they likely will be printed on the front page, as Hawkins once so boldly challenged us to do.