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Details emerge in firefighter investigation

JENNA-LEY HARRISON

Staff Writer

 

As Lincoln County Sheriff’s detectives continue to investigate an embezzlement case involving two eastern county fire departments, the targeted agencies speak out about this month’s shocking situation.

Denver Fire Department’s Public Information Officer Dion Burleson, who is handling media inquiries in the case for both Denver and East Lincoln Fire Department, said he and other firefighters are “numb” by the news.

He also summed up the appalling affair in one word–”devastating.”

“Neither agency has any tolerance whatsoever for this type of behavior,” he said. “This is not these organizations who did this; this is one person who did this.”

Deputies said a volunteer firefighter, whose name has yet to be released, worked at both departments and embezzled more than $20,000 from them.

“It has affected both departments tremendously,” Burleson said.

The suspect is accused of using agency funds to make purchases at area businesses and produce fake invoices for fire equipment and school tuition, according to the Sheriff’s Office. Deputies said he also turned in bills for assignments he didn’t do.

Financially, the stolen funds comprise a minimal percentage of each agency’s annual budgets, Denver with $1.9 million a year and East Lincoln with $1.47 million.

Burelson said more hurtful than the alleged crimes committed and money lost is the “priceless” lack of consideration and mistrust between the person of interest and department heads and co-workers.

“Whenever you look at the (firefighter) profession, one characteristic you expect is integrity,” Burleson said. “We are trusted by the public to provide the help people need in times of crisis.”

He hopes the public doesn’t change its perception of the profession and cast a disdainful eye on innocent others, who can’t help but take the situation personally.

“When someone betrays that trust, it has a devastating effect not only on the community but also on the firefighters,” Burleson said. “You feel like you were used and someone else’s wrong doing has shed a bad light on you.”

Fire officials said the firefighter served at least a decade at East Lincoln and five years with Denver. He was working as a Denver battalion chief when his alleged actions surfaced.

Burleson said the departments were able to make it through an audit apiece without discovering the financial discrepancies because the agencies used separate CPA firms.

East Lincoln fire officials later discovered some suspicious-looking invoices and alerted Denver’s Chief Flynn, who noticed similar issues with his department’s funds. Flynn then contacted the Sheriff’s Office about the matter.

While Burleson said neither agency has ever dealt with such a large-scale betrayal, Denver did experience a similar but more minor situation in 1999.

He said a former chief, who maintained control of all department finances at the time, stole between $2,000 and $5,000 from the agency. The person was quickly fired after Denver’s then assistant chiefs, including current Chief Jay Flynn, discovered the funds were missing.

However, with the current situation, the person did not have primary control of the department books, fire officials said.

Burleson reassured the community that recent circumstances would in no way affect first-responders work ethic and response times.

“This has not compromised either departments ability to respond to or handle any emergencies that we are dispatched to,” he said. “Both agencies are in unity and fighting together to see that justice is done on behalf of the taxpaying citizen.”

While detectives said they have a person of interest in the case, they will not make an arrest until the investigation is completed.

Both fire departments also have to wait until the case closes before contacting insurance companies about the lost funds. Burleson said each agency maintains policies that cover “misfortunes” such as embezzlement.

“There are plans and safety nets in place that will get us to recoup from this,” he said.

 

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