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Ex-Berkeley Co. sewer district director avoids jail time

July 27, 2007|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - The former executive director of the Berkeley County Public Service Sewer District on Friday avoided jail time and payment of $22,649 in restitution more than four months after entering a no-contest plea to a misdemeanor count of embezzlement.

Walter H. Sebert Jr. was fined $500 and ordered to pay court costs by 23rd Judicial Circuit Judge Christopher C. Wilkes.

Sebert was indicted in October 2006 by a Berkeley County grand jury on a felony count of embezzlement, and previously was named in a 12-count indictment in February 2005. Eleven of the counts were dismissed, and the original embezzlement charge in the indictment was flawed in its wording, prompting the reindictment in October.

Sebert was accused of embezzling more than $31,000 between Jan. 1, 2003, and May 2004, when he was fired.

On Friday, Wilkes ruled that a "mutual release of all claims" signed by two sewer district board members and the current executive director after Sebert entered the plea on March 12 trumped any remaining argument for restitution payments to the sewer district or a jail sentence.

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"I don't think you can turn around and say, 'By the way ... we want some of that money,'" Wilkes said of the notarized release.

William F. Rohrbaugh, general counsel for the district's board of directors, said the board wanted Sebert to be sentenced to 52 weekends in jail and ordered to pay a $2,500 fine, but did not ask the court to be compensated for about $70,000 spent on legal fees and their fraud accounting investigation.

"Mr. Sebert must be punished for his willful violation of the public trust," Rohrbaugh said. He declined to comment after the hearing on what subsequent actions would be taken pending review of the case with the board.

Before announcing the sentence, Wilkes criticized the state's embezzlement claims. He questioned how bonuses and life insurance adjustments, seemingly approved by the board of directors, could support the prosecution's case, and noted a number of other "irregularities."

"The Harley Davidson boots that didn't even fit the defendant ... (the) public funds that were used to purchase leather jackets that were given to who? - the board of directors," Wilkes said.

The judge also noted other concerns linked to "leftover polo shirts from a golf outing" and testimony by board member John C. Kunkle in March concerning discussions of sewer district business by Sebert and board members at Danny Rays Raw Bar & Grill.

"The characterization of all the ills that occurred financially just don't add up to what we heard (in one day of) trial," Wilkes said.

Wilkes ruled the release of all claims made effective March 12, the day the no-contest plea was entered, superseded any outstanding claim by the state for restitution. The document wasn't signed by Kunkle, fellow board member John E. Myers or current sewer district Executive Director Curtis B. Keller until March 13, according to records.

"The law says you go by the four corners of the document," Wilkes said. "A release generally acts as a bar to collection (of restitution)."

Jim Lees, Sebert's attorney, told Wilkes that he was surprised that the sewer district still was seeking restitution after Sebert's plea and after the release was signed by his client on March 29.

The March 12 plea was coordinated with the dismissal of a civil lawsuit that Sebert had attorney Michael L. Scales file against the sewer district last year. Charles F. Printz Jr., legal counsel for the sewer district and board members in the civil case, did not return a message left Friday at his office. Both Printz and Scales were in Wilkes' courtroom when Sebert's plea was entered in March. Scales previously has declined to comment about the civil lawsuit.

The final order of dismissal for Sebert's civil case ended breach of contract claims against the sewer district, Kunkle and Myers, but Sebert reserved the right to refile litigation against former board member Robert L. "Bob" Grove Sr., according to records.

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