Gannaway denies WVVOAD is under federal investigation, hopes to rebuild trust after employee is sentenced for embezzlement 

By Stephen Baldwin, RealWV

Jenny Gannaway is no stranger to a crisis. As the Executive Director of West Virginia Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (WVVOAD), she is used to providing families assistance after floods, fires, or storms. 

But following the sentencing of a former WVVOAD employee for embezzlement and accusations from that former employee about her own conduct, Gannaway is facing a different kind of crisis.

“Our mission is to help people,” Gannaway said in tears during an interview with the RealWV this week. “We’ve always been looked at as a great organization that thinks about families, and I want to make sure we get back to that.” 

Volunteers with WVVOAD deliver a new fridge to a family who was flooded in Cabell County in 2022.

Former employee sentenced for embezzlement

Benjamin Cisco pled guilty to embezzling more than $870,000 from WVVOAD in federal court and was sentenced to more than three years in prison plus restitution of the full amount taken. 

The US Attorney’s Office characterized Cisco’s case in this way: “Cisco admitted that his fraud scheme followed a two-step process. First, Cisco electronically transferred money from the victim charity’s debit cards to its account with the Flipcause crowd-funding platform, which recorded those transfers as donations. Second, Cisco electronically transferred money from the victim charity’s Flipcause account to his personal bank account, which he had falsely labeled as belonging to the victim charity.”

“After spending six years with the victim charity, Mr. Cisco knew the real-life consequences of disaster but still chose to misspend the victim charity’s money on personal expenses, household items, Lowe’s gift cards, and luxurious vacations to Disney World,” said United States Attorney Will Thompson following sentencing. “Mr. Cisco’s actions personified greed and the Court acknowledged that by giving him a sentence at the upper limit of the sentencing guidelines.”

Summer 2022

In the summer of 2022, a whistleblower, who Gannaway now believes was Benjamin Cisco, made accusations about her conduct to the WVVOAD Board of Directors. In response, the board placed her on leave while they conducted an investigation. 

She was reinstated in less than a month after the investigation, according to WVVOAD, found no wrongdoing on her part. 

The board did, however, find evidence that Cisco was embezzling from the organization. They reported the matter to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which eventually led to the indictment, guilty plea, and sentencing of Cisco. 

“Going back and looking, maybe I made some sloppy mistakes,” Gannaway concedes. “In the disaster world, you are reacting all the time. We have made policies now to keep those mistakes from ever happening again.”

Accusations against Gannaway aired at Joint Committee on Flooding meeting

Fast forward to January 2024. Cisco pled guilty and is awaiting sentencing in a few days time. Gannaway appears at a Joint Committee on Flooding meeting to make a presentation about WVVOAD’s ongoing disaster recovery work. She appears before the committee regularly, as she has done ever since 2017. 

After her presentation, Sen Eric Tarr (R-Putnam), begins a line of questioning that proceeds for nearly half an hour. He asks Gannaway about accusations aired against her by Cisco, who is about to be sentenced to more than three years in prison later that same week. Accusations include improper use of funds, receiving donated items for personal use, hiring family members, and more. 

When Gannaway finished presenting and with other business items concluded, Tarr said, “In light of the discussion with Ms. Gannaway, I’m not convinced that the funds that went through VOAD…were used appropriately.”

He then said, “I think this matter should be referred to the Committee on Special Investigations. Those state dollars that have been involved that were directly related to Gannaway’s supervision and probably the board as a whole should probably be referred to the state auditor…and also to the legislative auditor.”

In conclusion, he clarified, “The motion is that the committee make a referral to look further into this matter and the allegations that are circling around these funds.” 

In a voice vote, the motion passed unanimously. 

During our interview with Gannaway this week, she said that since the meeting she has not heard from Sen. Tarr, the Committee on Flooding, the Committee on Special Investigations, or the Auditor’s office. 

We asked if WVVOAD was or had been under federal investigation, as inferred by the Kanawha County Commission and governor’s office recently?

“VOAD is not under federal investigation nor have we ever been,” Gannaway said. She did inform the governor’s office of Cisco’s embezzlement and their disclosure of that to federal authorities. “We’ve always worked so well with them that we wanted to give them a heads up. But the only investigation was of a former employee that embezzled from VOAD and that led to an indictment and a guilty plea and sentencing.”

She believes a miscommunication with the Kanawha County Commission led to their comments about an alleged investigation. 

“Our board chair did reach out to them,” she recalls. “Until sentencing (of Cisco), we had to be careful about what we could say. We’ve always had a great relationship with them. During that flood, we set up shower trailers and distributed lime and water and flood buckets and put people in hotels for Kanawha county and didn’t charge at all. And we’ll do it again in the future. We will be trying to rebuild that relationship.”

WVVOAD sends letter to Joint Committee on Flooding

Following the Joint Committee on Flooding meeting where it was moved to refer WVVOAD for investigation, Gannaway and WVVOAD sent a letter to the chairs of the committee, Senator Chandler Swope and Delegate Dean Jeffries. 

“We want to clear up any question anybody has about VOAD,” Gannaway says. “Our state needs VOAD. A lot of time our families won’t get help otherwise. We want to get that cleared up and rebuild that relationship.”

In the five-page letter, WVVOAD pushed back against the accusations aired against them during the January 7 meeting, saying, “Contrary to receiving lump sum grant funding, WVVOAD receives grant funding as a subrecipient grantee for federal funds allocated to state agencies. These grants operate on a reimbursement basis, necessitating approval of all expenses by both the appropriate state agency and approval at the state auditor’s office before any reimbursements are made.”

In regard to accusations of WVVOAD staff receiving items such as furniture instead of clients, the letter says the donor (Good360) approved of certain items being given to staff so long as they made a donation to WVVOAD for the items which were either damaged or not needed by clients. An accompanying email from the company seems to corroborate that claim. Gannaway provided cashed checks to the committee showing she donated more than $2,500 for some of the items in question.

Gannaway also faced questions regarding if and why she hired family members for WVVOAD jobs. The letter says, “WVVOAD acknowledges facing workforce challenges amid the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to the employment of certain family members. In response, the organization has implemented policies overseen by the human resources department, legal counsel, and the board of directors. These policies expressly prohibit the recruitment of individuals with familial ties, ensuring a professional and impartial hiring process.”

In addition, the letter addresses accusations about giving “hero pay” to WVVOAD staff including Gannaway during the pandemic. According to the letter, WVVOAD did award hero pay to staff and stands by that decision. They cite action by Governor Jim Justice as a precedent for the bonuses, saying, “In April of 2020, Governor Jim Justice awarded ‘hero pay’ to first responders working during COVID-19. WV VOAD implemented the same policy with the $100,000.00 of PPP money that the organization received. WVVOAD employees actively contributed to COVID-19 relief efforts, including clinics, flood responses, and distributing masks and sanitizer. They assisted child care centers, vulnerable populations, emergency managers, and food pantries. Additionally, they supported families with COVID-19 by delivering food and supplies during the pandemic.”

The letter concludes by inviting the committee to visit their warehouse for an up-close look at their operations. “We appreciate the voice this Committee provides and see you as a partner in disaster relief,” it says. As a result, WVVOAD invites the committee to name a legislator to join their board of directors.

Ongoing disaster recovery work

Gannaway says their disaster recovery work continues across the state. Right now, they have more than 100 cases in Mercer, Kanawha, Mingo, and Wayne counties. 

“We had the flooding in Mercer county in May,” she remembers. “There was no FEMA help. The only help those families are getting is from VOAD. Our goal is to get them in a safe and sanitary home and see if this federal disaster declaration comes to fruition.”

During the month of December, Gannaway said her organization focused on distributing more than 7,000 toys to children in families affected by disaster. “Our focus is always on families affected by disaster.”

She is proud of the capacity they’ve built since 2016. “It took us more than a month to get a laundry trailer in 2016,” she says. “Now we can get that equipment out to flooded areas within hours of the water going down. It’s the same thing with our warehouse. We’ve purchased box trucks that stay stocked with supplies. We can have supplies on the ground within two hours of the water going down.”

But she knows rebuilding trust in the wake of recent controversies will be difficult. 

“We depend on donations and people’s trust in order to have what we need to help families,” she says. “On a positive note, all of this has helped us tighten our policies and procedures and make positive things come out of this. We now have a CPA working with us and a Finance Committee at the board so that in the future this would never happen again.”

Facebook
Twitter
Reddit
Email

Related stories

Severe Weather Update

By Jason Christian, Blue Weather & RealWV Here is your severe weather outlook for the next couple days. Todays threat is in the northern part

Give us your feedback