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4 convicted in Comar scandal face sentencing

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Convicted Cross Lanes computer executive Martin Bowling faces 25 to 31 months in prison under federal sentencing guidelines.

But Bowling's lawyer has asked a federal judge to keep Bowling out of jail -- and not force him to pay a fine or restitution.

Bowling and three others convicted in a state employment training grant scandal are scheduled to be sentenced at 1:30 p.m. today at the federal courthouse in Charleston.

In December, Bowling, former Comar Inc. CEO Al Hendershot, West Virginia State University extension agent Christine Gardner, and Workforce West Virginia grant manager Mary Jane Bowling, who is Bowling's mother, pleaded guilty to criminal charges in federal court.

The four admitted they took part in a scheme to embezzle grant money, then cover up the theft.

In a recent sentencing memo, federal public defender Mark French told U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver that Bowling has cooperated with the government, providing "substantial assistance" to investigators and saving federal prosecutors the time and expense of seeking an indictment.

Bowling testified for more than two hours before a grand jury investigating the grant allegations.

"Mr. Bowling provided testimony to the government that enabled the government to expand its investigation into fraud with respect to Workforce West Virginia," wrote French, of Criswell & French.

French also argued that Bowling was being punished for the same crime twice -- as Bowling pleaded guilty in Kanawha Circuit Court in 2008 and spent a month at South-Central Regional Jail last March on a computer fraud charge.

In December, Bowling pleaded guilty to misappropriating government funds and aggravated identity theft. The second charge mirrors Bowling's 2008 conviction, French said.

Bowling is paying restitution on that case, and his ability to pay additional fines or restitution is "limited," according to French. 

"Mr. Bowling has been, and has the future to be a strong, contributing member of society," French wrote.

French also submitted 26 letters from Bowling's friends, family and former co-workers, who asked the judge to keep Bowling out of jail.

They said Bowling regrets his actions and wants to make amends.

"He has suffered much already," wrote Luke Toney, a freelance writer. "His job is gone, as is his mother's, his house lost, his family has been scrutinized in the daily newspapers for months and months, their private lives exposed, his future jeopardized."

Bowling's supporters included several Internet marketing executives Bowling met at computer conferences throughout the U.S.

Bowling attended those conferences with grant funds that his mother illegally steered to Cross Lanes-based Comar, where he worked as chief technical officer.

"I believe Martin has much to offer and will benefit us all greatly, if he is allowed to remain a free man," wrote Todd Friesen, vice president at Position Technologies in Seattle.

Other letter writers were his wife, Mandi, father-in-law, Michael Felty, and Thomas Toliver, director of Family Youth and Development Services.

In December, Mary Jane Bowling admitted she advised her son what to include in a $100,000 grant application Comar submitted to Workforce West Virginia, a state employment agency.

Mary Jane Bowling later forged a co-worker's signature on a grant evaluation form to ensure Comar received the grant. Bowling, who resigned from her Workforce West Virginia post amid the scandal last year, also admitted she encouraged her supervisor at Workforce West Virginia, Steve Dailey, to support Comar's grant application.

Dailey was scheduled to appear at Bowling's sentencing last month, but the hearing was postponed until today. It was unclear whether Dailey still planned to testify.

Workforce West Virginia started an audit of Comar's grant in March 2009 after the Charleston Gazette published a series of stories about Mary Jane Bowling's involvement.

Soon after, Mary Jane Bowling instructed Comar employees to place documents in a company file to substantiate the firm's request to use grant funds to attend training seminars. Bowling also asked Comar workers to alter credit card receipts to conceal grant reimbursements, according to her plea deal.

Despite the cover-up, auditors cited numerous "questioned costs," including $10,000 in bogus consulting fees paid to Mary Jane Bowling's housemate, Christine Gardner, and Mandi Felty, Martin Bowling's girlfriend at the time.

Bowling told investigators that Felty did no work on the grant. Instead, Bowling received Felty's share as an employee bonus for helping secure the grant with his mother's help.

Hendershot, who now lives in Myrtle Beach, S.C., has admitted he diverted the funds. Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869


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