The Barbour County Commission "plans to deny the allegations" outlined in a federal civil lawsuit filed July 18 in U.S. District Court in Elkins, officials said Monday.
Barbour County Commission President Jedd Schola delivered a brief statement during Monday's meeting regarding the 15-count lawsuit brought by 19-year-old Brittany Keene, of Moatsville, which names the commission and Barbour County Sheriff John Hawkins as co-defendants.
The complaint accuses Hawkins of sexually assaulting Keene and five other women and alleges that the commission "knew or should have known, of the proclivity and tendency for violence and excessive force of Hawkins in performing his law enforcement duties," but nevertheless "permitted and authorized him to continue in his capacity as sheriff."
The Inter-Mountain photo by Katie Kuba
Barbour County Commissoners Jedd Schola and Phil Hart address the public during Monday’s meeting.
On Monday, Schola publicly acknowledged Keene's complaint, but said the commission would not offer any further comments.
"On July 22, the Barbour County Commission was served with a copy of the complaint in the civil action 'Brittany Keene versus Sheriff John Hawkins and the Barbour County Commission,'" Schola said. "The allegations are serious in nature, and they will be treated as such, but they are just that - allegations.
"We have yet to find any evidence that the allegations are true, and the commission plans to deny the allegations," Schola continued. "The commission does not plan to discuss this suit further and will refer any questions to counsel."
Attorney Keith Gamble of the Morgantown law firm Pullin, Fowler, Flanagan Brown & Poe, PLLC, is representing the commission in the case.
When asked after Monday's meeting if the commission has launched an internal investigation into the merit of Keene's allegations, Gamble said the commission will examine the validity of the claims throughout the discovery process.
"At this stage, the answer is no," Gamble said. "We're going to be considering them during the discovery phase in the case, and we're going to be looking into the allegations.
"It would be inappropriate for us to launch a separate investigation into allegations that are arguably criminal," he added. "That's not our job. The proper authorities have that information."
Gamble confirmed he was referring to the FBI. In 2012, Barbour County Prosecuting Attorney Leckta Poling told The Inter-Mountain she had alerted the FBI about Keene's allegations against Hawkins.
Because Schola and commissioners Phil Hart and Timothy McDaniel had not returned voicemail messages seeking comment, The Inter-Mountain attempted to pose several questions to the commission during the public comment portion of Monday's meeting.
On Monday afternoon prior to the meeting, when an Inter-Mountain reporter tried, at the Barbour County Courthouse, to sign up to speak, county administrator Chuck Foley told the reporter he would ask Schola if she could speak and would then notify her of Schola's decision.
"We've never had a problem letting anyone speak, I'll put it that way," Foley said.
However, the reporter was not notified of any decision by Schola before the meeting began.
During the meeting, Bill Iddings of Belington addressed the commission about a conflict over a road name. When Iddings finished speaking, he exited the meeting prior to its conclusion. The Inter-Mountain reporter followed him out into the hallway to learn what process he had followed to sign up to speak.
After talking briefly with Iddings, the reporter returned to the meeting to discover it had been adjourned. Schola told the reporter the commission had planned to allow her to speak at the end of the meeting, but she had missed her opportunity because she wasn't present prior to adjournment.
When the reporter requested a written copy of the commission's public comment policy, Foley said the commission did not have one.
Commissioners gave conflicting answers about how to go about signing up to speak during a public comment period. Schola said 24-hour notice was required; however, Hart said the commission typically allows speakers to sign up just before the meeting.
Foley offered to place The Inter-Mountain on the agenda for the next Barbour County Commission meeting, which will take place at 5 p.m. Sept. 9.
Schola said the commission has never denied anyone the opportunity to speak at its meetings.
"We've never turned anybody away," he said.
Hawkins was not present at Monday's meeting.
The Inter-Mountain planned to ask the commission about how the day-to-day operations of the Barbour County Sheriff's Office will be handled, given that Hawkins has publicly stated some duties will have to be placed "on a back burner;" whether they've taken any steps to launch an internal investigation regarding Keene's claims; and whether Hawkins has a county-issued cellphone paid for with county funds. Keene's lawyers have released a statement claiming they have incriminating text messages Hawkins allegedly sent to Keene.
Keene's July 18 complaint accuses Hawkins, the Barbour County Commission and/or both of: unlawful arrest; excessive force; civil conspiracy; tort of outrage/intentional infliction of emotional distress; battery; negligent retention and hiring; false imprisonment; negligent training and supervision; assault; deliberate indifference; malicious prosecution; abuse of process; sexual assault; providing alcohol to a minor; and dissemination of a nude photo of a minor.
Contact Katie Kuba by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.