In the wake of a federal civil lawsuit filed against him, Barbour County Sheriff John Hawkins has stated that some of his duties may have to be placed "on a back burner," while he prepares to mount a defense; however, the head of the West Virginia Ethics Commission said Wednesday it's unclear whether using on-duty time to prepare a defense is a violation of the state's Ethics Act or a misuse of power.
"When it comes to defending a lawsuit, it's a gray area about the use of public resources," Joan Parker, the executive director of the state Ethics Commission, told The Inter-Mountain Wednesday.
Brittany Mae Keene, 19, of Moatsville, has named Hawkins and the Barbour County Commission as co-defendants in a 15-count complaint filed in the Elkins office of U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia that accuses Hawkins of sexual assault, battery, false imprisonment and use of excessive force, among other charges.
Hawkins released a statement Tuesday denying Keene's allegations in which he wrote, "We (the Barbour County Sheriff's Office) will handle business to the best of our ability and respond to your needs as quickly and efficiently as we can."
Hawkins then went on to say that "Some tasks, such as estates, grants and other duties may be put on a back burner while I prepare a defense to these allegations, as our staff is limited."
The Inter-Mountain subsequently contacted Hawkins seeking answers to several questions that statement raised, including what duties a county sheriff is responsible for fulfilling; if he plans to prepare his defense while on duty; and how, if at all, the public will be affected by his decision to place "estates, grants and other duties ... on a back burner."
When asked Wednesday if he had a moment to answer those questions, Hawkins responded, "I'm done with the media. I've made my statement, and any more comments I give is just another day I'll have to see it in the media."
The sheriff then abruptly ended the phone conversation.
Parker, the director of the Ethics Commission, said it isn't clear if allowing one's public duties to suffer as a result of preparing a private defense is a violation of the state's Ethics Act.
"That's a fascinating question because the Ethics Act prohibits the use of public resources for private benefit, and what that normally means is you don't get to use public funds for your own self-interest," she said. "So you don't use a public vehicle to drive down to Myrtle Beach to save gas and you don't have your secretary pick up your dry cleaning.
"But elected officials, such as the sheriff, don't normally have set hours," Parker said. "What that means is, because the sheriff doesn't punch a clock, it's kind of hard to say whether that's an abuse of public resources for him."
However, Parker also noted that, like any other citizen, Hawkins has a right to have access to documents he may need to utilize to defend himself - which could be located in the sheriff's office, for instance.
"I think there would be an expectation that he would have access to those documents to defend himself," she said. "You don't give up all your rights as a citizen when you're elected to a public office."
A state government official in Charleston who wished to remain anonymous indicated that because the charges were filed against Hawkins, it's not permissible for him to use public resources - including the sheriff's office or public time - for the preparation of his defense.
The source said a citizen could file a writ of mandamus in court against the county to try to compel the sheriff to complete the tasks that have been assigned to "a back burner." If that were to happen and a judge found in favor of the citizen, the county could be forced to pay the citizen's legal fees, the official added.
So, what tasks and responsibilities does state code assign to county sheriffs? Virgil Miller, chief deputy of administrative services for the Upshur County Sheriff's Department, said sheriff's duties range from basic tax collection to investigating homicides.
"Sheriffs sometimes have to settle an estate when families can't resolve it," said Miller, who served as the sheriff of Upshur County for 16 years. "In conjunction with (the state) Department of Health and Human Resources, sheriffs act as conservators for protected persons, meaning someone who is not able to mentally handle their own personal affairs ... we handle that for them. We take applications for concealed weapons permits, and another aspect is court security, including transporting prisoners to and from court.
"We do mental hygiene orders, transporting juveniles to and from detention facilities, and on the law enforcement side, we cover everything from traffic accidents to investigations of murders and sexual assaults," Miller added.
The other defendant in the case - the Barbour County Commission - has yet to issue an official statement regarding Keene's allegations. Commissioners Phil Hart, Jedd Schola and Timothy McDaniel have been advised to direct all media inquiries to their counsel, attorney Keith Gamble of the Morgantown law firm Pullin, Fowler, Flanagan, Brown & Poe LLC, Gamble said Tuesday.
Schola and McDaniel did not return voicemail messages left Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and when reached at the Bridgeport Fire Department Wednesday, where he's employed as a firefighter, Hart declined to comment.
When asked if the commission plans to publicly respond to the allegations contained in the lawsuit, Hart said, "I'm going to refer all questions about this case to counsel."
Contact Katie Kuba by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.