Washington County, Virginia, Commonwealth Attorney Josh Cumbow said he could’ve charged a few more Bristol Virginia Utilities employees with crimes, but opted against it since they cooperated with the federal government’s corruption investigation.
As we reported last week, Cumbow said the state’s BVU investigation will not likely result in additional criminal charges.
“We identified about maybe 12 people that might have had some criminal liability,” he said. “Most of those people have now been convicted in federal court. They’re convicted felons. They lost their job. Most of them went to jail. They’re financially ruined. Ones we didn’t prosecute that we could have cooperated fully with the federal government and testified on their behalf. On those folks, I didn’t think it would set a very good precedent to try to convict them when they had helped get convictions on other people that the feds prosecuted.”
At our request, investigators let us review their case records for the first time. The 250-page investigative file took four hours to review and included roughly 75 hours’ worth of transcribed interviews with 33 BVU credit card holders. The sheriff’s office redacted all of the names and prohibited copies since the case is still technically open and could be revisited if they discover new evidence.
In March 2014, we reported BVU employees spent tens of thousands of dollars on meals and gift cards over an 18-month period using ratepayer money. The sheriff’s investigation not only confirmed that, but also showed investigators identified more than $110,000 worth of questionable expenses in all and those are just the expenses investigators could account for.
“They were misusing company credit cards,” Cumbow said.
In addition to $29,000 in untaxed gift cards given to employees and $89,000 in improper food purchases, including more than $3,000 worth alone for board members, the records identified untaxed loans that allowed employees to not only buy computers, but even fund gym memberships.
Investigators documented instances of some employees getting their cars worked on for free during work hours by a BVU mechanic, the utility using ratepayer money to buy gifts for employee’s kids, employees getting access to certain home improvements and one employee using BVU workers to set up tents and chairs for her children’s birthday party.
Records also identified someone with a supposed BVU connection who got the benefit of BVU tree trimmers reluctantly clearing dead trees from a Glade Spring home after the tornado there, even though records show those trees weren’t even damaged by the tornado.
“It all leaves a bad taste in people’s mouth, but we would have gone after the credit card use,” Cumbow said.
Much of what’s inside the file eventually came out in federal court after a former board member alerted law enforcement and a detective started investigating. That investigation, which resulted in the federal government’s involvement, resulted in 10 convictions and the end of corruption at BVU.
“In my opinion, the right people are now convicted felons and it’s over,” Cumbow said.
New BVU leadership has said multiple times the utility’s corrected past problems.
The BVU file revealed two other interesting details. Before the former CEO resigned, the board placed him on administrative leave for several weeks and before his resignation, BVU was in talks to take over Johnson City’s fiber-optic network.
Since 2014, our Community Watchdog investigations have resulted in dozens of reports highlighting questionable activity at BVU.
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