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Ihlenfeld creates investigative team to review Upshur County Schools spending

WHEELING — U.S. Attorney for Northern West Virginia Bill Ihlenfeld said Friday he’s made no predetermination but he’s heard enough about how federal pandemic relief money was spent in the Upshur County school system to begin a federal investigation.

Ihlenfeld said he was contacted earlier this month by state education officials who noticed red flags in their review of the spending. He has now formed an eight-member team to do an independent investigation.

“I put together a team that will subpoena all of the relevant documents, that will interview witnesses, that will issue target letters if appropriate and then we will work together and I will ultimately determine what action should be taken,” Ihlenfeld said Friday on MetroNews “Talkline.”

Upshur County received $16.1 million in federal pandemic funds over three years. An initial review by the federal funds office in the state Department of Education noticed some non-compliant spending which has since spurred a special circumstances review by the state. The state Board of Education saw enough to seize control of the Upshur County school system Wednesday which included the appointed of former Preston County School Superintendent Stephen Wotring as superintendent in Upshur County. State Deputy School Superintendent Michelle Blatt is overseeing the system.

Ihlenfeld’s said his team includes a white collar crime prosecutor from his office, an agent from the U.S. Department Office of Inspector General, a top fraud investigator from the West Virginia State Police and five other staff members from Ihlenfeld’s office.

Ihlenfeld said there may have indeed been the misuse of federal dollars.

“We have millions of dollars, federal dollars, at play here and whenever that’s the case it’s my responsibility if there is a suspicion of federal law that we take a look at it,” Ihlenfeld said, adding that investigations into the spending of covid dollars has been a top priority for the U.S. Department of Justice and his office.

Ihlenfeld said the team will look at the work the state has done and is doing in its ongoing review but the federal team will conduct its own investigation.

Ihlenfeld said it’s too early to tell if a federal grand jury will be used in the process.

“If we see that a grand jury can be helpful to us in investigating this we’ll certainly take advantage of that,” Ihlenfeld said.

Ihlenfeld said it’s also difficult to predict how long the investigation will take. He said his office will not drag its feet but it also won’t rush.

“We are going to be very thorough, very fair. We’re going to look at all of these documents. We are going to interview relevant witnesses and ultimately we’ll get to the bottom of it,” Ihlenfeld said.

Some members of the state Board of Education became upset with state Superintendent David Roach in connection with what they perceived as a delay from Roach in telling them about the Upshur County issues. Roach has since announced his retirement.

The state BOE meets in special session next Friday to accept the retirement and appoint a new state superintendent of schools.