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Originally published: 2014-01-20 12:12:59
Last modified: 2014-01-20 12:13:44

State board seeks actions against Best Western contractor, employees

by Anna Oakes

Three hotel employees and a local contractor face potential disciplinary actions as a result of the Boone Best Western investigation conducted by the State Board of Examiners of Plumbing, Heating and Fire Sprinkler Contractors.

Representatives from the State Board of Examiners conducted an investigation at the hotel in June following the discovery of carbon monoxide as the culprit in the deaths of three people there in April and June. Investigators said the high levels of carbon monoxide originated from an indoor swimming pool water heater and a deficient exhaust system.

The board has the authority to suspend or revoke the license of any contractor who does not comply with state laws.

The board held an informal conference with licensed contractor Dale Thomas Winkler of Boone in December, but the parties did not reach a settlement at that time, said Reed Fountain, an attorney for the board. The proceedings will now advance to a formal hearing, where the board will decide what, if any, actions to take with regard to the contractor's license.

Fountain said the work Winkler performed at the Best Western "is a factual question that will need to be determined in the formal hearing, (but) I can say it is not alleged that he performed the initial installation of the pool heater in question."

Reached by email, Winkler declined to comment on the matter.

Following the hearing, there will be a 30-day appeal period before actions are finalized, board Executive Director Dale Dawson said.

The board filed a complaint in Wake County Superior Court against Charles Harold Robinson of Watauga County, Steve Thigpen of South Carolina and Rich Moses of Tennessee, who were maintenance employees for Appalachian Hospitality Management, the former operator of the Best Western.

The complaint alleges that the three installed a used gas-fueled swimming pool heater and associated exhaust piping connections at the Best Western during fall 2011 and winter 2012 without possessing a license from the State Board of Examiners. The complaint seeks injunctions against the three individuals barring them from engaging in further plumbing, heating or fire sprinkler work without a license.

Paul Culpepper, the Hickory attorney representing the three maintenance employees, said Friday that he and his clients are not prepared to comment at this time.

Earlier this month a Watauga County grand jury indicted Appalachian Hospitality Management President Damon Mallatere with criminal charges of involuntary manslaughter and assault in the fatalities. Mallatere, who entered a plea of not guilty to the charges, questioned why the district attorney and police did not direct more attention to the contractor, Independence Oil, that performed the natural gas conversion of the pool heater in 2012.

"Our work is not in question because we weren't indicted on this," said Darryl Knight, former president of the now-defunct Independence Oil, in response.

Fountain said the State Board of Examiners is not currently taking action against Independence Oil.

"We're not necessarily done investigating. I don't know where the investigation will necessarily go," Fountain said. "We've got to take it one step at a time."