PARKERSBURG — Wood County Sheriff Steve Stephens is retiring, effective Wednesday, Dec. 1.
The sheriff, who has recently been named in lawsuits and faced a vote of no confidence from his deputies, officially tendered his resignation Monday during the regular commission meeting in a short letter.
“Gentlemen: Effective 12/1/21, I hereby retire from my position as Sheriff of Wood County. Respectively, Sheriff Steve Stephens,” the letter said.
The letter was dated “11/12/21” — last Friday.
The letter arrived at the commission, via email, as local resident Charles Roberts was speaking to the commission about the situation. Earlier in the meeting the commission went into executive session to discuss a matter relating to the sheriff’s department.
The commission voted unanimously to accept it.
“It closes a chapter on the Wood County Sheriff’s Department and opens a new one,” Commission President Blair Couch said.
The commission will begin the process of appointing a replacement for Stephens. Any appointment would be good until the next regular election in the spring when candidates can file to run for the unexpired term.
“We expect to hear from interested parties to be appointed sheriff,” Couch said. “It will be interesting to see the names that will start coming up.”
During its next meeting on Thursday, the commission will begin to discuss the criteria and requirements for the appointment, officials said.
Last week, the law firm of Goodwin & Goodwin LLC of Charleston began an investigation to determine if the allegations against Stephens rise to the level of a recommendation of removal of office before a three-judge panel.
Stephens was recently named in a lawsuit from a former deputy, Della Matheny, as well as had accusations from Deputy Tasha Hewitt, both alleging misconduct and inappropriate behavior towards them. Another lawsuit was filed Monday by Court Officer Mark Harris alleging Stephens acted inappropriately regarding time Harris had taken off as he was caring for his wife who was diagnosed with cancer.
County officials said the commission doesn’t have direct oversight of the day to day operations of the sheriff’s department, doesn’t pick who the sheriff department hires or how discipline is handled.
In a letter to Couch, dated Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021, attorney R. Booth Goodwin II said the law firm began “an extensive investigation concerning the allegations related to Sheriff Stephens” the prior week with the goal of “determining the facts and whether those facts form a basis for removal proceedings.”
He wrote their five-person team spent 12-14 hours each day last week making contact with and/or interviewing more than two dozen witnesses. They also reviewed evidence previously gathered and gathered more as well as reviewed laws about removing county officials, including sheriffs.
“By Friday afternoon, we had completed the initial phase of the investigation,” Goodwin wrote.
He wrote Stephens had met with him and members of the team investigating the matter.
“After the meeting, Sheriff Stephens stated that he intended to and did agree to submit his resignation as Sheriff of Wood County effective Dec. 1, 2021,” Goodwin wrote, adding the sheriff had to do so by electronic mail prior to or in person at the commission’s Nov. 15 meeting.
With the resignation, the firm is suspending its investigation and the commission will accrue no further costs associated with the investigation.
Roberts and local resident Marie Krinock asked the commission what was known when in regards to Stephens and exactly how much money has been paid in settlements and legal fees.
Krinock asked about additional lawsuits, including one filed Monday, as well as other possible lawsuits related to the sheriff that may result in more settlements, paid with taxpayer money.
“It appears to me that the county commission has been very aware of Sheriff Stephens’ behavior and it appears there are going to be more lawsuits,” she said. “He is retiring. How much more money is Wood County taxpayers going to have to pay out for his frivolous lawsuits that you guys already knew about?”
At one point Couch moved to adjourn the meeting, it wasn’t seconded, he left the room and Krinock and Commissioner Jimmy Colombo argued.
Later, Couch said the county pays out a $15,000 deductible for each settlement to its insurance company. Money was paid out related to Hewitt and other matters. People can do Freedom of Information Act requests regarding documentation on money spent, Couch said.
He also said the commission could not discuss pending litigation, but said the commission has taken the situation with Stephens very seriously from the beginning.
Stephens could not be reached for further comment.
Brett Dunlap can be reached at email@example.com