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Trial under way for ex-sewer director in Berkeley County

March 07, 2007|by MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Nine women and three men were seated as jurors Tuesday in the trial of former Berkeley County Public Service Sewer District Director Walter H. "Walt" Sebert Jr., who was indicted in October 2006 on allegations that he embezzled more than $31,000 from the agency.

Dismissed from his job in May 2004 by the service district's board of directors on grounds of malfeasance, Sebert was named in a 12-count indictment decided by a grand jury in February 2005.

All but the one count of embezzlement were dismissed in August 2006 when Prosecutor Pamela Games-Neely told presiding 23rd Judicial Circuit Judge Christopher C. Wilkes that the dismissed counts were incorrect based upon the evidence collected in the investigation.

In opening statements Tuesday, Games-Neely said a cash-flow problem in 2003 sparked an investigation of the agency's operations and ultimately led to the removal of a Ryder truckload of items, such as office furniture and other items, from Sebert's home.

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"He had three weed whackers at home - all bought with board money," Games-Neely said.

Barring inclement weather, the trial will resume today with additional witnesses expected to take the stand for the prosecution's presentation of evidence.

Games-Neely said hotel rooms were reserved for the district's business out of town and some of them would be canceled, but the refund would not be returned by Sebert.

She also noted the state's case would show that Sebert convinced the board of directors to allow him to use his personal airplane to fly to Charleston, W.Va., for an emergency meeting and then billed them for an airplane rental.

Sebert took advantage of the board and forced his employees to act as "unknowing co-conspirators," Games-Neely said.

Defense attorney James B. Lees Jr. in his opening statement questioned the merit of the indictment, noting the list of embezzled items included 10 blank compact discs, a stapler, chair mats, a three-hole punch, a worn public service sewer district T-shirt, three boxes of trash bags and a flashlight, among other items.

"What possible use would he have for this - none," Lees said.

He said his client converted a garage at his home into a temporary storage facility until a district building under construction was complete.

Lees used a projector to show jurors two memos written to the district's board a few days after Sebert was fired indicating that the items belonging to the agency would be available for officials to retrieve them from his house.

"Mr. Sebert did not commit any crime, and at the conclusion of this case I will ask you to so find," Lees said.

As the first of several state's witnesses expected to testify, Berkeley County Public Service Sewer District board member John C. Kunkle said he didn't believe the board of directors approved Sebert's use of his plane, and also noted that he had no knowledge Sebert had a home office.

In cross-examination, Kunkle acknowledged that Sebert's employment contract was reviewed by an attorney, but did not agree the agreement allowed for the accused to have additional insurance coverage at the sole expense of the district.

"I don't interpret it that way," Kunkle said. When Lees asked him where he obtained that interpretation, Kunkle said, "I can read."

When questioned by Lees about reducing certain operating expenses of the sewer district, Kunkle acknowledged a number of occasions when board members billed the sewer customer-supported agency for dinners at high-end restaurants, including one involving a meeting with bond counsel at the Bavarian Inn in Shepherdstown, W.Va. Another happened at Danny Rays Raw Bar & Grill in the Berkeley County community of Baker Heights. That meeting included discussion of sewer district business by board members, Kunkle said. The sewer district also paid for dinners at The Tidewater Grill, an upscale seafood restaurant in Charleston, and the Historic Market House Grill in Martinsburg, Kunkle said.

Kunkle said he believed Sebert's employment contract, including a salary of more than $70,000 per year, was supplemental to the guidelines of the sewer district's employee handbook. Lees stated in the form of a question that the terms of both documents could not be applied to his client, prompting Kunkle to question Lees whether the distinction meant that Sebert was then "free" to sexually harass other employees.

"I think the contract supplements it," Kunkle said of the handbook.

Games-Neely had said in opening statements that a $50 monthly reimbursement was required of Sebert when the district's vehicle was used for purposes outside of work, and also noted gas purchases the accused had made included "nongas" items not approved by the board. She also noted the purchase of two pairs of Harley-Davidson brand boots, a bonus for Sebert that did not factor in standard deductions and the handling of additional life insurance for Sebert.

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