W.Va. sheriff resigns, pleads guilty to mail fraud

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - Barbour County Sheriff John Hawkins resigned Thursday and pleaded guilty to a federal charge that he staged an automobile accident to receive an insurance payment of nearly $8,300.

The 47-year-old Philippi resident entered a guilty plea in U.S. District Court in Elkins to a mail fraud charge.

U.S. Attorney William Ihlenfeld said Hawkins admitted to staging the accident last April. With the help of one of his deputies, he fabricated a claim to Nationwide Insurance.

The prosecutor says a review found inconsistencies in Hawkins story about the accident. Photos taken by an insurance adjuster and information from the vehicle's data recorder contradicted his version of events.

Hawkins used his office email account to communicate with Nationwide about the claim, which was paid last year.

"The defendant used his position as sheriff to take advantage of the insurance claims process and to receive a substantial financial benefit," Ihlenfeld said. "By abusing the authority of his position, Sheriff Hawkins violated the trust that the citizens of Barbour County placed in him when he was elected."

No sentencing date was immediately set. Hawkins faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Hawkins still faces trial next September in a federal lawsuit brought by a 19-year-old Moatsville woman who claims he sexually assaulted her in 2011 and threatened to kill her if she told anyone. He was then sued by a private investigator who claims the sheriff defamed him during his work on the girl's case. Hawkins has denied wrongdoing.

The lawsuit says the girl had applied for a job at the county 911 center in 2011. The lawsuit alleges unlawful arrest, excessive force, civil conspiracy, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution.

In addition, Hawkins said last September he would repay $700 in county funds that an audit says were misspent. The spending between 2010 and 2012 has been referred to the state Ethics Commission for investigation. Two audits found that Hawkins bought flowers, gift cards and alcohol for office staff and deputies with money from his department's concealed-weapons permit fund.

State ethics guidelines allow public funds to be used to honor employees and promote morale, as long as the amount spent is $25 or less per person.

Hawkins is the latest sheriff in West Virginia to resign amid legal troubles.

Former Clay County Sheriff Miles Slack was sentenced to probation in December for hacking his now ex-wife's work computer. He resigned last September.

Ex-Jefferson County Sheriff Robert Shirley was sentenced last May to a year in federal prison for his role in the 2010 beating of a bank robbery suspect after a high-speed chase. Shirley was re-elected last year while under indictment but resigned.

In Mingo County, the late Sheriff Eugene Crum was a key figure in a federal investigation that charged a former prosecutor and an ex-circuit judge in a scheme to keep Crum's alleged drug supplier and campaign sign maker, George White, from talking to the FBI about the late sheriff. Crum was killed last April in an unrelated shooting.

Former prosecutor Michael Sparks and ex-circuit judge Michael Thornsbury will be sentenced later this year. Sparks has pleaded guilty to depriving White of his constitutional rights and Thornsbury has pleaded guilty to conspiring to deprive White of his rights.


(Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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