By C.V. Moore
MOUNT HOPE —
Several years of bitter conflict between two community groups that both claim to want the best for Mount Hope are coming to a head in a West Virginia State Police investigation.
State Police Sgt. S.E. Wolfe confirms that a criminal investigation of William Sohonage and his dealings with the former Mount Hope High School is ongoing.
Wolfe says many have been interviewed for the case, but he has yet to sit down with Sohonage himself to hear his viewpoint. He would not comment further.
At the center of the clash are Mount Hope Heritage & Hope (MHHH) and The Center of Hope, both nonprofits headquartered in the town of 1,414 that now calls itself “The Gateway to the Summit” because of its proximity to the new Boy Scouts of America’s Summit Bechtel Reserve.
Along with a quasi-governmental organization called Mount Hope ON TRAC, the two groups are sparring over the ownership of the former Mount Hope High School, which was given to MHHH by the West Virginia Board of Education in June 2011.
MHHH’s attorney Ryan Donovan of Bailey & Glasser says his client has not filed a lawsuit.
“And we’re hopeful that we won’t ever have to,” he says. “But all that is kind of up in the air, pending the investigation.”
MHHH did provide The Register-Herald with an official statement, in which it accuses Sohonage of fraud.
The group says the members never voted to transfer the school to The Center of Hope, that
Sohonage had no authority to execute a deed doing so on their behalf, and that he acted without their knowledge.
One of The Center of Hope’s board members, local business owner Lynn Loetterle, says the group is in the process of retaining an attorney and would not comment on the record at this time.
The Center of Hope originally offered to open up its books to The Register-Herald but, after learning of the police investigation, decided against it.
The group maintains its finances are in good order and that its records will be independently audited to prove it.
Sohonage also said he would not speak on the record about the situation, at the request of his board.
The stated purposes of both organizations make the rancor among them all the more ironic.
Mount Hope Heritage & Hope was incorporated in November 2007 by Rebecca Dean, Lynn Loetterle and Jan Londeree.
The statement of purpose contains words like “cohesive,” “viable,” “sustainable,” “unite,” “empower” and “beautiful.”
“As a non-profit organization, we will pursue financial and other assistance for the common good of the people of Mount Hope and will serve as a forum for honest debate, nonpartisan and collaborative decision-making and inclusiveness, maintaining open records of meetings and finances,” the incorporation papers state.
The bylaws transparently describe the duties of board members, meeting procedures and process for dissolution, much of which would become legally relevant later.
The Center of Hope’s incorporation document likewise holds up the good of Mount Hope as a focal point.
The February 2012 document says the organization will be housed at the former Mount Hope High School and will operate a mentoring and education center for youth, along with a spot for “recreation and community-building.”
Community-building may have occurred — youth basketball tournaments are held at the high school, for example — but the community building has also created some powerful ill-will among townspeople.
In 2010, a chapter of the West Virginia Department of Commerce’s ON TRAC program was formed in Mount Hope to “boost economic and community growth.”
Originally, it was sponsored by MHHH, and the two groups essentially functioned as two organizations with one board.
ON TRAC had a “positive and productive start,” according to a Department of Commerce (DOC) spokesperson.
But a year later, the DOC had to provide a professional facilitator to work with ON TRAC to “resolve internal conflicts that had arisen.”
On June 19, 2011, The Register-Herald published an interview with Sohonage about MHHH’s upcoming plans to “turn young lives around” at the former Mount Hope High School, which would be deeded to the group in a matter of days.
In the story, Sohonage discusses the town’s poverty and refers to several city facilities as “dumpy” and “rundown” — quotes he says were taken out of context.
The article created something of a rift in the community, where sensitivities about poverty run deep.
Three days later, The Register-Herald published an “Our Readers Speak” letter by Thomas Brown, a current MHHH member and originally the liaison between the ON TRAC program and the City of Mount Hope.
Clearly referring to Sohonage and MHHH, he writes that “one person’s comments don’t always reflect the entire group that he/she belongs to and one person should never make their personal opinions or comments appear to be those of an entire group that they belong to, especially without prior approval from that group.”
Some on the board felt that Sohonage was operating too independently from the will of the whole, as relations among the board members bitterly unraveled.
On Jan. 17, 2012, MHHH/ON TRAC held a meeting at which they essentially agreed to separate from each other and began dividing their assets. The most substantial of these was, of course, the school building.
How and whether the assets — which also included thousands in cash — were legally divided is at the heart of the current dispute.
Brown announced the split on MHHH’s Facebook page in March. Later, in the fall, he commented that it was “a good thing,” calling ON TRAC “a joke,” and composed of “outsiders that are elitist and think they know better” than Mount Hope people.
Good deeds in dispute
Mount Hope High School was consolidated in 2011, much to the sorrow of many proud Mustangs. The building was shuttered, but not for long.
“The needs of the Mount Hope community require the use of the property for charitable purposes,” says a deed that transfers the building from the school board to MHHH on June 30, 2011.
It contains a reversion clause that says the building will revert to the Board of Education if MHHH is dissolved or if the building ceases to be used for the community within five years.
“From our perspective, it’s been great,” said Fayette County Schools Operations Director Ron Cantley. “We thought of it as a win-win.”
The school board even carried insurance for MHHH for a few months as a goodwill gesture.
But that fall, Sohonage approached the board of yet another hopefully named community organization in town — Mountain of Hope — about the possibility of its taking over the school.
“Sohonage ... said he’d been authorized by Heritage and Hope to turn the property over to us, and I was part of a team that was supposed to evaluate whether we should do this or not,” says Jack Spadaro, a board member of Mountain of Hope who says he doesn’t know anybody else in either factious group.
After touring the building and considering further, the group concluded it would be unwise to take on what members saw as the multimillion-dollar project of renovating the school. Spadaro also says that he didn’t trust various aspects of Sohonage’s dealings in the situation.
Soon after, MHHH and ON TRAC split.
And two weeks later, The Center of Hope was created, with Sohonage as the sole incorporator.
The very same day, on Feb. 1, 2012, another deed was filed that transferred the high school from MHHH to The Center of Hope. It is signed by Sohonage and Loetterle, who are listed as vice president and secretary/treasurer of MHHH, respectively.
The deed was prepared by Sherri Goodman, a lawyer for the West Virginia Department of Education.
Goodman says the department’s staff attorney was approached by Sohonage, who asked about the reversion clause in the original lease.
“Mr. Sohonage, who was V-P of Mt. Hope & Heritage, (asked) if the reverter clause would go into effect if Mt. Hope & Heritage deeded the property to another nonprofit organization that would continue the community activities,” Goodman told The Register-Herald. “She said that it would not.”
Goodman said Sohonage requested the attorney review a draft deed. Because it contained some inapplicable legal code, the attorney offered to prepare a more appropriate deed.
“The attorney prepared the deed to further the Fayette County Board of Education’s interest in seeing that the building would continue to be used to benefit the Mount Hope community and not revert back to the board,” says Goodman.
When MHHH learned of the property transfer, which it terms fraudulent, the group says it acted immediately to remove Sohonage from the board and revoke his access to the group’s bank accounts.
The Bank of Mount Hope froze one of the organization’s accounts, which contained approximately $25,000, for many months because of the conflict.
In its statement, MHHH claims that Sohonage plotted for several months to get control of the school and made “a calculated series of misrepresentations” to government officials in the process.
“These misrepresentations include false and misleading statements about his authority to act on behalf of our Board and about his work and educational backgrounds,” MHHS says.
No resolution in sight
Attorneys reportedly met in December of last year to attempt a mediation between the groups, but reports indicate it did not end well.
In the meantime, recent federal budget cuts threaten the terms of the current contract between a military joint task force — which is currently using the high school building as its base while they assist in construction of the Summit Bechtel Reserve — and The Center of Hope.
Mount Hope Mayor Michael Martin does not belong to either community group, but says he attends board meetings of both. As mayor, staying out of the mess is impossible, he said, but he’s trying his best.
Martin would not speak on the record about the situation except to urge a shift in the current tack of town leaders in both groups.
“I think if we made the effort to get along and work together to keep positive things going on in this community and avoid negative things, we’d go so much further,” he said.
State Police investigations often begin with a call from a citizen who believes a crime has been committed, said Sgt. Wolfe.
If the police believe there are reasonable grounds to suspect that’s the case, they move forward with an investigation. Eventually, they present their findings to the prosecuting attorney, who makes a determination about whether to bring charges.
Wolfe and Fayette County Prosecuting Attorney Carl Harris have reportedly not yet met extensively on the matter.
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