Town of Urbanna repaid FEMA $94,500
by Tom Chillemi
First of a series (Part 2)
On Monday Urbanna Town Attorney Andy Bury read a 7-page report to the Urbanna Town Council explaining why the town had to refund $94,500 in grant money to the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.
The lengthy report delves into the town’s accounting practices, and how shifting control of town funds apparently did not have the necessary checks and balances that could have prevented this financial problem. (This will be the subject of a future article in the Sentinel.)
The money had been granted through FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) to repair the Urbanna Town Marina at Upton’s Point following Hurricane Isabel, which occurred in September 2003.
Bury emphasized the grant money was for “repairs” to the marina; however, the town “reconstructed” and upgraded part of the facility to be compliant with the American Disabilities Act (ADA).
“Apparently the town, through the guidance” of then town administrator G. Lewis Filling Jr. “decided that it was in the best interest of the town to ‘reconstruct’ the marina instead of making the repairs that were approved in one FEMA grant,” states Bury’s report.
“There were a number of good reasons why this approach to replace instead of repair the existing facilities had merit, including without limitation, the fact that the current facilities did not meet the current ADA handicapped guidelines,” states the report. “Unfortunately, the town failed to obtain an amendment to its grant approval and simply replaced instead of repaired the marina facilities.”
Early in his report Bury states, “I also want to disclose to the public that some of the information identified from the town records was actually discovered by the town staff in unconventional locations such as under the seat in one of the former town vehicles and in the personal files located in the office of Lewis Filling, the former Town Manager/Chief Executive Officer of the Town of Urbanna. That being said, I am not suggesting any impropriety on the part of Mr. Filling and in fact I do not want any of my comments to suggest otherwise.”
(Editor’s note: Filling is currently incarcerated after pleading no contest to felony embezzlement of funds from the Central Middlesex Volunteer Rescue Squad.)
Bury’s report states that FEMA conducted its final inspections on marina grants some time between July and September of 2005, and by letter dated October 5, 2005, addressed to Mr. Filling, the town was notified by the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM)that the FEMA Project Officer reviewed the project worksheet for one of the grants and found it to be ineligible. The letter also advised the town of its right to appeal the decision but that the ineligible funds in the amount of $93,908.09 had to be returned to VDEM, the agent for FEMA.”
Bury’s report goes on to say that in October 2005 Filling sent a letter to then Senator George Allen asking for his assistance in the matter. In a letter dated October 20, 2005 the VDEM filed an appeal with FEMA on behalf of the Town of Urbanna.
However, the VDEM demanded repayment of $93,908.09 in letters to Filling dated January 3, 2006, March 27, 2006 and July 16, 2007, Bury’s report indicates. “A letter dated April 29, 2008 sent to the attention of Mr. Filling via certified mail, return receipt requested, from the Virginia Department of Emergency Management provided, among other things, (1) FEMA denied the first appeal “due to the lack of notification in regard to major changes made to the scope of work associated with this project”; (2) that “although there was an option to submit a second appeal within 60 days of receiving their (FEMA) response to the first appeal, there is nothing in our (Virginia Department of Emergency Management) files to indicate there was any interest by the town to pursue a second appeal”; and (3) as a result of the time lapse, the Department of Emergency Management had no recourse but to request that the Town of Urbanna reimburse the Commonwealth of Virginia the sum of $93,980.09 which is the amount that was de-obligated by FEMA. It should be noted that the April 29, 2008 certified letter was later found by the town staff under the front seat of the former police vehicle before it was sold,” stated Bury.
“The remainder of my report is based on conversations that I have had with representatives from the Virginia State Police and VDEM. There are other town files in the possession of the Virginia State Police that were seized pursuant to that particular search warrant issued against the town in June of 2011. I am not at liberty at this time to discuss that investigation but I can assure everyone that this investigation does not involve any current staff members or public officials of the Town of Urbanna.”
VDEM gave the town the option of amending the grant application, which was not done. “As a result, the VDEM had no choice but to demand repayment of these funds,” states Bury’s report.
“It is my understanding that the Attorney General’s Office started to make demands on the Town of Urbanna, through correspondence sent to Mr. Filling, demanding repayment of these sums. Unfortunately I do not have the original correspondence in my possession to give you more particular dates. It is also my understanding that at some time prior to August of 2010 that the Attorney General’s Office was in contact with the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office in Middlesex County seeking its assistance with the recovery of this money. Again, I have no written correspondence to either confirm or deny that fact. What I can tell you is starting in August of 2010 and continuing through April of 2011, the Town of Urbanna made payments to the Commonwealth of Virginia in the amount of $94,500.21. I cannot explain the difference between the $93,809.09 initially demanded and the $94,500.21 ultimately paid by the town, a difference of $592.12, other than it equals the last payment made by the town on April 7, 2011 and I assume it represented the interest due for the delinquent repayment of this sum,” states Bury’s report.
Most of the checks were signed by Filling in his capacity as Town of Urbanna Treasurer. “I am happy to state publicly for the record that (town clerk) Gina Daniel has been cleared by the State Police and she is not under any investigation for any impropriety,” states the report.
Bury’s report notes that he was not made aware of the FEMA matter until June of 2011 when the town was served with a subpoena duces tecum and later by a search warrant by the Virginia State Police. “I accepted the position of Town Attorney in August of 2007 after Mr. (Rob) Brooks resigned and I can state for the record that neither Filling nor any other person associated with the town advised me of the ongoing circumstances regarding the de-obligated FEMA grant. It appears that Filling kept these matters to himself and failed to seek the assistance of the Town Council, the Town Attorney or any other member of the staff.
“During a conversation with the investigator handling this matter with the Virginia State Police in late 2011, I was asked why I was not handling the legal matter with the Attorney General’s Office. I advised this person that I was not aware of the repayment issue from the FEMA grant, let alone any communications between Mr. Filling and the Attorney General’s Office and that I did not become aware of the problem until June of 2011 when I requested from BB&T copies of the checks written by the town in October, November and December of 2011,” states Bury’s report. “Keep in mind that the original checks were in the possession of the Virginia State Police pursuant to the search warrant. It is my professional opinion that Mr. Filling attempted to resolve this matter in the best interests of the town but was not qualified to navigate the bureaucratic quagmire created by the FEMA regulations and he did not seek the assistance of others who in my opinion could have addressed the issues. Instead, the town repaid these sums and apparently the interest that accrued thereon.”
A future article in the Sentinel will delve into how this situation could have progressed over almost six years without the knowledge of the Town Attorney and others associated with the Town of Urbanna, and how the money was repaid to FEMA.