Ex-Benton Fire District 6 clerk accused of embezzlement

Kristin M. Kraemer, Tri-City HeraldMarch 17, 2014 

A former part-time clerk for Benton Fire District 6 is suspected of embezzling at least $6,557 to buy personal items, like a tablet, leather boots and computer equipment.

A fraud investigation report, released Monday by the state Auditor's Office, found discrepancies in the district's finances between January 2008 and May 2012.

During that time, the clerk also made questionable payments totaling $12,527 and, of that amount, $11,452 lacked sufficient documentation such as original receipts, the report said.

The man -- who was not named in the report and has not yet been charged -- resigned May 4, 2012, after being confronted by district management about the purchases.

Two months before that, Fire Chief Rolland Watt had followed state law and notified the Auditor's Office of the potential loss of public funds. The alleged misappropriation was discovered during a management review of the bill, Watt said.

The district in the southwestern corner of Benton County covers about 1,000 people on 256 square miles, most of which is farmland.

"It did not affect the operation. We still got our fire trucks out the door and still paid the bills that we had," Watt told the Herald. "But any time funds are not directly spent on response can be a detriment to the district. The money could have bought a fire hose or could have bought a heart monitor. It definitely could have had a better purpose."

The district has since changed its methods of accounting and records retention, and will "vigorously pursue" recovering the losses, he said.

Now that the state investigation has wrapped two years later, the case has gone back to the Benton County Sheriff's Office for possible criminal charges. Lt. Chuck Jones said his department is "actively working it," but couldn't release further details.

Prosecutor Andy Miller said he only received a copy of the fraud report Monday morning.

"We've already been in contact with the Sheriff's Office, and we'll read the report and also wait for the sheriff's investigation to be done before we make a charging decision," Miller said later in the day.

The clerk worked for Benton Fire District 6 for about 13 years. The position had a monthly salary set by contract -- for which he signed his own paycheck -- and didn't pay benefits.

In addition to receiving bills and handling payroll, he was responsible for taking notes at monthly meetings of the district's three-member board of commissioners, writing vouchers for review by the board and submitting them to the county for payment.

The fire district has an annual budget of about $846,588, with $413,484 of that going to operating costs.

Watt, who was appointed chief in November 2009, and one firefighter/paramedic are the only full-time paid employees. He has 16 active volunteers and brings on four more people during summer months, but said the district always needs more to help with the stations in Paterson, Plymouth and Sunheaven north of Paterson.

The state fraud investigation found that the clerk started a petty cash checking account that should have been used to pay incidental district expenses. The account was used to order supplies and pay recurring monthly expenses, which auditors said should have been done through the accounts payable process.

Both the clerk and the chief were authorized to sign on the account, yet the clerk was the "sole reviewer of bank statements and performed all bank reconciliations." He also on occasion transferred funds from the payroll account to the petty cash account, the report said.

The clerk kept all financial records at his home and had shipments directly delivered there instead of at the stations.

Some purchases that auditors found weren't for district purpose included the tablet with a two-year warranty, a color laser printer with toner, a 4-terabyte storage server, a monitor and a scanner. Instead of keeping all original receipts, the clerk scanned them in "using equipment that creates digital content," which auditors note increases the risk of having receipts altered.

The clerk declined a request by the state Auditor's Office for an in-person interview about the purchases. However, he did send emails with information on payments made by him, though there were no records available to support those statements, the report said.

He didn't respond to a last request for additional information, the report said.

The fire district responded to the four control issues pointed out in the audit.

Watt said they've since hired a new district clerk and "written the job requirements and job duties so that we will not have an issue like this in the future."

The clerk no longer has independent authority to purchase or make direct payments, the two separate accounts have been closed and Benton County maintains all district funds, and all documents now are stored at the main station so Watt and board members can do regular reviews.

"We are a very small district and everybody knows everybody, and it's always sad when there is the idea of misappropriation," Watt said "But we have the resolve to ensure that we (take the investigation) to its fullest extent ... and recoup what we can for the district."

"In the fire service it's always an issue of public trust, and we want to do our due diligence to earn that trust," he added. "And any time you have something like this happen, it erodes that trust. So we will do our best to rebuild it."

-- Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531; kkraemer@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @KristinMKraemer

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