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West Virginia court orders Mount Carmel mayor to pay $570K in embezzlement lawsuit

Jeff Bobo • Jan 11, 2018 at 9:00 PM

ROGERSVILLE — Mount Carmel Mayor Chris Jones’ mother and two uncles are asking Hawkins County Chancery Court to “domesticate” a $571,569 default judgment from a West Virginia lawsuit that accused Jones of embezzling the lion’s share of his dying grandmother’s estate.

Jones didn’t attend court hearings in West Virginia to defend himself, and the court ruled in favor of his mother and uncles this past August. 

On Wednesday in Rogersville, Third Judicial District Chancellor Doug Jenkins signed an order directing Eastman Credit Union to provide plaintiffs’ attorney Bill Nunnally with all of Jones’ bank records dating back to Nov. 1, 2014.

That’s when Jones’ name was added to his grandmother’s checking account.

Last month, Jenkins signed an order freezing Jones’ assets and prohibiting him from disposing of any valuable property such as his motorcycle, pickups, car, trailers, tools, construction equipment, boat or camper.

Nunnally, who represents Jones’ mother and two uncles in Tennessee, said the goal of his Chancery Court filings is to “domesticate the judgment” from West Virginia, which would allow his clients to seize Jones’ assets.

What were the allegations against Jones?

Jones’ grandmother Marceline Carpenter died on Jan. 2, 2016 in a West Virginia assisted care center.

In March of that year, a lawsuit was filed in Randolph County (W.Va.) Circuit Court by Mrs. Carpenter’s daughter Barbara Jo Long of Morristown (Jones’ mother), and two of Jones’ uncles, Robert Carpenter and Gary Wayne Carpenter, both of Junior, W.Va.

The lawsuit alleged that Jones embezzled almost $394,000 from his grandmother’s estate in the final year of her life.

The lawsuit claims that Mrs. Carpenter suffered from dementia toward the end of her life, was not competent to sign away her power of attorney or endorse checks and was in a nursing home as of Feb. 5, 2015.

In November of 2014, Jones’ name was added to her checking account.

On Dec. 1, 2014, Mrs. Carpenter reportedly signed over her power of attorney to Jones, giving him complete control over all of her finances and assets.

On Dec. 17, 2014, Mrs. Carpenter endorsed the back of a check for $111,000 after Jones cashed in her CD (certificate of deposit). Jones then allegedly deposited those funds in his personal account at Eastman Credit Union.

Shortly after she was admitted into the nursing home, Mrs. Carpenter signed a document liquidating a savings account. Court records indicate that Jones created a new account for himself and transferred $133,000.

“We don’t know yet what became of that money, but we know it left West Virginia and went into his personal bank account,” Nunnally said. “She signed the back of the check, but by that time she was in fairly advanced dementia.”

Nunnally added, “Then he starts withdrawing $5,000 here, $7,000 there — lots of withdrawals made either to himself or his company (A&C Contractors). Those withdrawals occurred fairly frequently through September of 2015.”

In September of 2015, Jones allegedly sold Mrs. Carpenter’s home for $90,000 and deposited the funds into what was still her checking account. Plaintiffs alleged that he then began to begin taking money from that account. There was also a vehicle that allegedly wasn’t accounted for.

“So, there’s $111,000, there’s $133,000 roughly and there’s another $90,000 roughly, that he took in one form or another,” Nunnally said. “I’m sure he would have said, had he litigated in West Virginia, that she was competent and she wanted that to happen. But she was not estranged from her own children. She had two sons in the same county in West Virginia, and she had a daughter here in Tennessee, who were not aware of any details of all this stuff, until after she died. Then they found out there was very little left.”

Nunnally said there was only $22,000 left in her checking account when Mrs. Carpenter died, and $9,000 of that was used to pay for her funeral.

“He was sued in West Virginia with the allegation being that he had improperly taken these funds and misused the power of attorney,” Nunnally said. “You’re not supposed to use the power of attorney to enrich yourself. That’s against the law. He never went to West Virginia to defend the lawsuit, so there was a default judgment against him, but no damages were imposed. In August of 2017, there was an order awarding judgment.”

What was the default judgment against Jones?

Jones was ordered by Judge David Wilmoth to pay his mother and two uncles a total of $571,569, of which $393,939 is compensatory damages; $131,313 is punitive damages; $6,200 is attorney fees; and $40,117 is pre-judgment interest. An additional 7 percent interest will be added annually for the unpaid balance.

In his ruling Wilmoth stated, “The Court finds defendant’s conduct reprehensible. Defendant continued in his actions of conversion and embezzlement from his grandmother for a period of approximately one year, draining nearly all of her assets over that time. Defendant must have been aware that his actions were causing, or were likely to cause harm.” 

Which of Chris Jones’ assets has Chancery Court encumbered?

A Ford pickup with the lettering A&C Contractors on the side valued at $15,000; a late model Ford van with A&C Contractors on the side valued at $12,000; a Jayco camper trailer valued at $10,000; a fishing boat and trailer valued at $5,000; a late model Harley Davidson motorcycle valued at $20,000; a large enclosed trailer valued at $8,000; a large open trailer valued at $2,000; construction tools and equipment valued at $8,000; and a late model Nissan valued at $20,000.

Nunnally estimates Jones’ overall assets at less than $100,000.

Where does the case go from here?

Nunnally said there’s only one defense open to Jones to prevent Chancery Court from “domesticating the judgment” from West Virginia.

That defense would be a claim that West Virginia lacks jurisdiction.

“That argument is extremely weak,” Nunnally said. “Establishing jurisdiction only requires occasional minimal contact between he and the state of West Virginia. He did lots of things in West Virginia. He got the power of attorney signed up there and he recorded it up there. He signed the (house) deed up there using the power of attorney. He made bank transfers. He wrote about 50 checks or more from banks in West Virginia.”

Nunnally added, “If he had gone up there (to fight the lawsuit) he might have had some success in defending that, but he didn’t. Now that West Virginia judgment is final, and enforceable in West Virginia, and we have been asked to domesticate it here in Tennessee.”

Nunnally doesn’t anticipate a new Chancery Court hearing date being scheduled in this case until he has received Jones’ ECU bank records, which could take several weeks.


 

Here’s what Chris Jones has to say about the lawsuit:

MOUNT CARMEL — Chris Jones told the Times News Thursday his grandmother wanted him to have the money he acquired from her West Virginia estate over approximately one year prior to her death in 2016.

In August the Randolph County (W.V.) Circuit Court ruled that Jones, who is the mayor of Mount Carmel, must pay his mother and two uncles $571,000 in punitive and compensatory damages for "embezzling" almost $394,000 from his grandmother’s estate in the final months of her life as she suffered from dementia.

But, Jones told the Times News Thursday he didn't embezzle anything, and he and his attorneys are fighting to prevent that civil judgment from being enforced in Tennessee.

Do you agree with the West Virginia judgment that you embezzled almost $394,000?

No. I don't agree with that. She wanted to make sure I was taken care of because I was there for her. I never knew my grandmother had money until she brought me up there and said, "This is yours."

She said, "I can't take it with me, and I want you to have it. They can have what I leave in the other account." What she gave me was what she gave me.

Do you know how much that was?

I do not.

How much do you think you got from her?

I really have no idea. However much I got, it sure wasn't worth losing my grandmother. I miss her every day, and it tears me up to think about her. We talked every day for years. My mother hadn't had a relationship with her for years. One of my uncles hadn't had a relationship with her since he left home when he was 18. The other uncle, I don't think he had a relationship with her for 10-15 years. She was alone and I was the only one there for her.

Did your grandmother have a will?

"She did have a will, and she had another bank account she wanted the other relatives to have, and they got that money. I have no idea how much that was. She gave (her other funds) to me before she died, so she didn't need to put that in her will."

The plaintiff's attorneys argued that she had dementia and she didn't know what she was signing when she signed over her power of attorney and endorsed checks. Is that true?

That's not true. She signed power of attorney well before she made the decision that she wanted to go to assisted living. I was just helping her do what she wanted to do, as I had for years.

What did you do with the funds you got from her?

I used it to pay bills. I used it to take care of her. I used it to further my (construction) business along so I could make money for us. I was expecting to be taking care of her for years and years. I wanted a good, steady business so I could continue to do that for many years and be able to take off any time she needed me. I wanted to make sure I was there to take care of her no matter what.

Did you use money you got from her to buy the motorcycle, the boat and the camper?

No. That was money I earned working.

Why didn't you go to court over this lawsuit in West Virginia?

I was expecting a hearing in West Virginia, and I was never notified of any hearing. I was notified that they were seizing her bank account until the hearing, but I was never notified of a hearing. The first time I heard about the judgment in West Virginia was when the sheriff's office served me with papers from Chancery Court in November. I immediately contacted an attorney, and beyond that I'm leaving it up to my attorney (David Darnell) to get this sorted out.

Why did your grandmother give you most of her estate?

"Me and my grandmother have a relationship that goes all the way back to my childhood. We've always been there for each other. She didn't have anyone she felt she could count on. She hadn't had a relationship with her two sons and daughter for many years. Her and I were the only two who had a relationship going on, and I was there helping."

"I spent weekends with her, helping her out. One weekend I went up and she told me she wanted to make sure she was taken care of, and she wanted to make sure I was taken care of. ... She put me on the bank account because that's what she wanted me to have."

"It was her decision to go to assisted living, and even then I was going up and taking her to Walmart and other places she wanted to go — to the park, on train rides, out to eat, anything she wanted to do. I'd go up and spend a couple of days just about every weekend with her. I was the only one (in the family) doing anything for her. The sad thing is, when the time came I was the one who had to make the decision to take her off of the feeding tube. That was the hardest decision I ever made. She was my best friend. She was always there for me."

What would you tell people who think you should resign as mayor over this?

“This was a civil lawsuit and a family matter, and has nothing to do with my ability to serve as Mayor of Mount Carmel. A lot of families get split up when it comes to deaths in the families and over wills, and unfortunately because of my position as mayor, a family disagreement becomes news.”

 

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