CHARLESTON –- Interest-free loans from the state Bar to employees -– including the former executive director -- are drawing the attention of lawmakers and other local, state and possibly even federal officials.
According to a Charleston Daily Mail Freedom of Information Act request, state Bar officials would not provide detailed records about the loans. They cited a state law that allows the withholding of documents "in the files" of the Commission on Special Investigations."
The commission consists of state Senate and House members and looks into purchasing practices.
The Daily Mail reports that the loans stopped happening in 2008, but not before former Executive Director Tom Tinder and other employees of the state Bar had taken out "tens of thousands of dollars in interest-free loans, according to annual audits."
From 2004 to 2008, "the Bar's governing board allowed employees to borrow against the amount of annual leave they had accrued," according to the Daily Mail. "If the employees had 10 days' worth of leave, they could take out whatever their salary would be for that period in the form of an interest-free loan. Staffers were expected to pay the loans back or forfeit vacation days."
In 2008, staff borrowed $41,940 through the program. Documents indicate the program could have been going on as early as 1992. Also, records show that several of the loans were paid back near the end of June at the end of the fiscal year and then re-issued days later early in July.
Tinder, who was executive director of the Bar from 1989 to 2007, told the Daily Mail the loans were a way to award staff and that the loans were "securitized" because they were backed by vacation days. He told the Daily Mail he received loans himself "for family reasons."
"No action was ever taken of a financial nature without the approval of the governing body of whatever organization I worked for," Tinder told the Daily Mail.
Tinder, who is now executive director of the non-profit West Virginia Bar Foundation, told the Daily Mail that the 25-member board that oversees the bar approved the loan policy in March 2004.
But Charles Love, president of the Bar's governing board in parts of 2004 and 2005, said loans had been made before he took the helm. He said the loans used to be undocumented and were not guaranteed with vacation days.
"I didn't know about it until I became an officer," Love, a Charleston attorney, said Thursday. "Then, I insisted on documentation. It's my understanding it had been going on for some time, and to my knowledge few people knew about it. But Tom Tinder seems to think others knew about it. But the past minutes and past financial statements don't seem to reflect it.
"The loans were not large, and they were fully secured. No one lost any money except, perhaps, some modest amounts of interest. Largest loans were about $10,000 to Tom Tinder. It was almost like a salary advance, in a way."
State Supreme Court Administrator Steve Canterbury said Thursday that the Supreme Court justices are "highly concerned" about activities at the State Bar.
"The court is aware of a number of these issues and is examining them," he said. "Traditionally, the Bar, though an agency of the court, has had a hands-off relationship with the Court. But that doesn't mean the Court can't step in if the Justices determine they need to."
There are indications that, in addition to lawmakers and the state Supreme Court, the Kanawha County Prosecutor's Office and the FBI are looking into the loans.
Tinder did not want to discuss the situation further Thursday.
"The information you want ... you may want to talk to members of the board of governors of the state Bar or officers of the state Bar who took actions and made decisions," Tinder told a reporter for The West Virginia Record.