PHILIPPI - Four individuals vied to become one of three nominees for interim sheriff at a Barbour County Democratic Executive Committee meeting Friday.
Current Interim Sheriff Phil Ferguson was the committee's top choice, followed by Travis Roberts of Tucker County and Scott Bookout of Pendleton County, who were also selected as nominees. James "Skip" Morris also spoke to express his interest in the position.
The Barbour County Commission will appoint an interim sheriff to serve until the November election, when the public will elect a sheriff to serve the remaining two years of former Sheriff John Hawkins' unexpired term.
The three nominees were selected Friday by separate silent voting ballots among the Democratic Executive Committee members. Each potential nominee was heard in open session.
On the first ballot, the Executive Committee unanimously voted for Ferguson, a native and a resident of Barbour County. He was named interim sheriff on Feb. 21 to serve for a period of 30 days. Ferguson previously served in the Barbour County Sheriff's Department as a sergeant.
He said he has been considering running for sheriff for some time.
"The county got into a bind with the sheriff we had to have now," Ferguson said. "It's unfortunate the stuff that happened. I was not involved in none of the stuff that happened in the Sheriff's Department. I've kept my nose clean for 22 years."
Ferguson said that although he is a Democrat, he has been told by many Republicans they would support him for sheriff. He said he will run for the sheriff's office in the November election.
"I'm going to try to get this county straightened back from the way it is," Ferguson said. "It's a shame that what happened has happened, but we have to go forward from today and go forward and get things straightened out."
The Executive Committee's second choice was Roberts, who identified himself as a current West Virginia Supreme Court intensive supervision officer who has worked on some of the "worst sex offender" cases.
"I don't exactly see myself as a Tucker County resident; I see myself as more of a West Virginian and a Democrat," Roberts said. "I believe it's very important to restore the citizens' faith in the Barbour County justice system and/or Democratic Party which has taken a little bit of a hit here lately."
Roberts said he also has worked as a certified police officer, a correctional officer for a maximum security prison and a juvenile detention center; he has also served in other roles that have given him the grant writing and supervisory experience he said he possesses. Roberts said no formal complaints or civil actions have been filed against him.
"Integrity is a big issue," Roberts said. "Integrity is doing the right thing when no one is looking. And I possess those traits."
Bookout, the third candidate who was selected, said he is a Barbour County native who is trying to move back. He said he is a licensed private investigator for the state of West Virginia, a real estate agent and a former out-of-state fire marshal.
"I'm here to basically bring the Sheriff's Department up out of the hole that it's gotten itself into and make it the best department in the state instead of it being a black eye," he said.
Bookout said that he has experience working in a big city where he has been shot at and where people have attempted to stab him. He said he believes that he is unbiased toward everyone in Barbour County because he left in 1986.
"I believe that come election time, it's going to need to be somebody from out of town to help keep a Democrat in there as sheriff, and I'm the one to do it," Bookout said.
He said that if elected he would run for sheriff when the term expires in two years and that he wasn't afraid to "step on somebody's toes" if that's what was required to do his job properly.
"I'm willing to start tomorrow to get it back in shape," Bookout said.
Democratic Executive Committee Chairman Jude McConnell said the Commission is not required to make its selection from the candidates who are tapped by the committee. The election will take place on Nov. 4 and potential candidates may contact the West Virginia Secretary of State's office for more information about the process, Commission President Tim McDaniel said Monday at a regular Commission meeting. Both the Republican and Democratic Executive committees will select a candidate to file for the November election.
"I'd like to remind everybody tonight that when the committee votes, they'll be voting for someone, not voting against you or anything personal," McConnell said Friday. "I would like this to be an evening that strengthens our party, not divides it, because we'll need that strength in November."
On Feb. 20, Hawkins pleaded guilty to a felony count of mail fraud in federal court in Elkins. As part of the plea agreement, Hawkins agreed to resign as sheriff and can no longer work in law enforcement.
His plea followed an incident in which Hawkins staged a motor vehicle accident, ultimately filing a false insurance claim with the assistance of one of his law enforcement officers, whose name has not been released.
Hawkins has since been released pending sentencing. A presentence investigation is underway. The sentencing date has not yet been set.
In July 2013, 20-year-old Brittany Mae Keene, of Moatsville, filed a 15-count lawsuit in federal court for the Northern District of West Virginia, alleging Hawkins sexually assaulted her and then threatened to kill her if she told anyone. The suit also accuses Hawkins of sexually assaulting five other unnamed females, referenced only as Females No. 1-5.
Hawkins has repeatedly denied Keene's allegations, which she first made public in summer 2012.
One week after Keene's July lawsuit was filed, Barbour County private investigator Franklin D. Streets filed a lawsuit in Barbour County Circuit Court against Hawkins that accuses the former lawman of libel and defamation - accusations stemming from Streets' investigation of the Keene case.
The West Virginia State Auditor's office returned findings in an audit in September that showed the misappropriation of funds from the concealed weapons fund of the Barbour County Sheriff's Office. According to the audit, those funds were used in the purchase of flowers, alcohol and gift cards for employees of the Sheriff's Department.
Another audit has been requested by the Barbour County Commission following Hawkin's resignation.