The Fayette Tribune, Oak Hill, W.Va.

October 28, 2013

Suit filed over ownership of former MH High property

By Wendy Holdren
Register-Herald Reporter

MOUNT HOPE — The nonprofit group Mount Hope Heritage and Hope Inc. (MHHH), has filed suit in Fayette County Circuit Court alleging its ownership of the old Mount Hope High School was fraudulently transferred to another organization.

William “Bill” Sohonage, of Oak Hill, and Lynne Loetterle, of Mount Hope, The Center of Hope Inc., Mount Hope On Trac and the City of Mount Hope are listed as defendants.

According to the suit, which was filed Sept. 23, Mount Hope Heritage and Hope (MHHH) began planning to acquire the old Mount Hope High School in spring 2011 to turn it into a youth development center for the community.

MHHH’s mission is “to advocate for a viable, cohesive Mount Hope that respects the community’s heritage and works toward a sustainable future.”

The suit said MHHH was going to use the property for charitable purposes, as it generates thousands of dollars per year in rental income. The property was acquired from the West Virginia Board of Education by a deed dated June 30, 2011.

Sohonage, vice president of the board of directors, was responsible for recording the deed, but according to the suit, he failed to record it in the county land books.

The following month, MHHH agreed to lease the property to the U.S. Military Joint Task Force for an initial one-year term, and optional one-year renewal terms, for an annual rent of $100,000, the suit says.

Over the next few months, the suit says Sohonage “began exercising more and more control” over the operation of the property and many board members began to feel like he was operating “too independently.”

Allegedly around this time, Sohonage began developing a plan to transfer the property. He made a proposal to another local community group, offering to transfer the property to them and in return, he asked the group to hire him under a no-bid contract to do numerous renovations, but the group declined his offer, the lawsuit claims.

He then requested a WVBOE attorney to prepare a deed which would transfer the property from the board of education to an entity (Center of Hope) to be organized by Sohonage, the suit claims.

MHHH said in the suit that it believes Sohonage tried to convince the attorney that it was not the owner of the property, as the June 2011 deed was never recorded.

The attorney, however, told Sohonage the property did not belong to the BOE and the property could not be transferred.

The suit said by the end of 2011, “relations between Sohonage and the board reached a breaking point.” At its February 2012 meeting, the board decided to sever ties with Sohonage, as well as On Trac.

At this meeting, the board did not vote to transfer the Mount Hope High School property to any person or entity, or to share the proceeds, but after that meeting, Sohonage allegedly drafted a fraudulent deed, identifying himself as the president, conveying the title from MHHH to his organization, Center of Hope, the lawsuit claims.

Sohonage then approached the WVBOE attorney a second time, asking her to review his drafted deed. The attorney reviewed the draft and returned the deed, the suit says.

Sohonage officially organized The Center of Hope, Inc., on Feb. 1, 2012, and he and another defendant, Loetterle, recorded the June 2011 deed (which transferred the property from the BOE to MHHH), then recorded the fraudulent deed, transferring the property from MHHH to Center of Hope, according to the lawsuit.

When the MHHH board learned about the fraudulent transfer, they acted immediately to remove Sohonage from the board and revoke his access to the bank account funds, the suit says.

Within several days, Sohonage attempted to withdraw nearly $25,000 from the account, but he was denied access, the lawsuit charges. The bank account was frozen for seven months while the bank conducted an investigation, but access was then restored to the other board members of MHHH.

After taking the title to the property, the suit said Sohonage negotiated a new lease between the U.S. Military Joint Task Force and the Center of Hope. The new lease doubled the previous amount of rent from $100,000 to $200,000.

Mount Hope Heritage and Hope is requesting a declaration that the deed is null and void, declaration that Mount Hope Heritage and Hope owns sole legal title to the property, disgorgement of profits from the defendants, compensatory damages, special damages, punitive damages and attorney’s fees.

Sohonage could not be reached for comment after several attempts.

— E-mail: wholdren@register-herald.com