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Chamber requests investigation

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By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

HILLSVILLE — The Virginia State Police confirmed that an investigation is underway into financial allegations at the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce.

Sgt. Mike Conroy confirmed that chamber officials are cooperating with the investigation.

As the state police just got the information last Monday, the investigation is just starting. Conroy estimated that a typical investigation like this takes 60 to 90 days.

Mike Metcalf, the president of the chamber described last Monday as a “sad day” after turning over records to authorities for an investigation into suspected financial irregularities.

Metcalf told The Gazette that $50,000 worth of chamber funds are in question, including problems with payroll and inappropriate and unauthorized expenditures.

Roger Hawthorne, who served as executive director since January 2006, is no longer with the chamber.

Members of the chamber’s board of directors started wondering after difficulties arose in scheduling board meetings this year, Metcalf said. Organizing a meeting time is a responsibility of the executive director.

Meetings would not be set for various reasons, the president said. If scheduled, the meeting might be called off a few days ahead of time because of a conflict the executive director had in his firefighting activities or for other personal reasons.

“It was never convenient to get a board of directors meeting,” said Metcalf, who is a certified public accountant.

He believes that there may have been a meeting in February. “That’s a long dry spell from February to August.”

Board members would call the chamber office and get the answering machine, Metcalf said. And the directors noticed that the Web site was behind the times, as shown by a calendar of events for 2006 still being on the site this year.

After July came and regular meetings were still not being held, Metcalf and Larry South entered the chamber office when it was unoccupied, and Metcalf said they became alarmed by what they found.

Items included unpaid bills, a notice about irregularities with a payroll tax form and Social Security information not agreeing, and a subpoena to show up for a meeting at the Virginia Employment Security Commission, the president said.

“At that point, Larry and I were extremely disturbed,” Metcalf said.

They summoned Hawthorne to the chamber office, and several members of the chamber board asked the executive director about what they had found.

Metcalf said Hawthorne told board members that he didn’t have answers for their questions and said he was not too good at record-keeping.

“His explanation that ‘I’m terrible at paperwork’ doesn’t cut too much water with us,” the president said.

In checking the operating fund and the Safe Halloween account, Metcalf said the chamber’s accounts had virtually no money in them and one had overdrafts.

Directors suspect that hours by Hawthorne were overstated, Metcalf said. They also discovered that a Dumpster for the chamber’s Labor Day Flea Market and Gun Show in a previous year was contracted for but was never cancelled after the event. Billing was allowed to continue and reached about $600.

Directors learned they were $1,900 behind in rent for the chamber’s space in the Hickory Hills Shopping Center, Metcalf said.

Board member Lindsey Johnson studied all account information that could be gathered and found “questionable expenses” such as checks to the executive director, his wife, Food Lion and DirecTV “to the tune of $50,000,” Metcalf said. He noted that the chamber office does not have DirecTV.

The directors sent Hawthorne a letter Sept. 8 asking him to repay the chamber $50,000, stemming from the time of his employment in January 2006.

The letter gave him 10 days to pay restitution, and Hawthorne told the directors he would have to go to Florida to get the money, Metcalf said.

Directors learned Oct. 3 that Hawthorne could not repay the money as requested.

As a result, Metcalf gave information that the directors had compiled to the Hillsville Police Department, which in turn sent it to the Virginia State Police for investigation.

Metcalf said it was sad for Hillsville and Carroll County that the chamber faces the need for an investigation. “But we’ll survive.”

Hawthorne could not be reached for comment.