Current Shenandoah Farms board members deny accusations of mismanagement on their watch
By Joe Beck -- firstname.lastname@example.org
FRONT ROYAL -- Stung by months of bad publicity, leaders of the Shenandoah Farms Volunteer Fire Department defended themselves Saturday against accusations of sloppy and erratic management made by Warren and Clarke county officials.
In a press conference that lasted more than an hour, Shenandoah Farms board members insisted that poor communication between themselves and officials in both counties has led to excessive and uninformed criticism of the department under their leadership.
Although board president Don Hoover did the majority of the talking, treasurer Judy Moriarty summarized the board's case in one sentence: "We, the current people in the department, have done nothing wrong."
Hoover spent part of the press conference answering comments made by Clarke County commonwealth's attorney Suzanne "Suni" Perka at the conclusion of an investigation by Virginia State Police and her office into the department's management practices. Perka, who issued her findings Sept. 22, said no criminal charges would be filed against anyone in the department.
Full details of what the investigation covered have not been disclosed. However, Perka's written comments made it clear that financial mismanagement was the focus of the probe. Perka, Warren County Administrator Douglas P. Stanley and Clarke County administrator David L. Ash continued to call on the fire department's administration to tighten money-handling procedures, despite a lack of evidence of criminal conduct.
Hoover and other board members said many of the accusations against the department are outdated and exaggerated. He painted a picture of a department that was in disarray for several years, but has undergone significant reform since early 2010 -- the same time when most members of the board were replaced by new members who make up the current board.
Fire chief Harlan "Buddy" Cook said the impetus for the audit had come from Warren County. In a reference to Stanley, Cook said, "He don't have a clue as to what we've got going on. If he knew, there may be a different outlook on things."
Stanley could not reached for comment.
Hoover said most of the problems cited by county officials pertained to a four- or five-year period when the department was governed by the old board.
Warren County officials did not contact the current board for its version of events before launching a third-party audit in the spring that led to the recently completed law enforcement investigation, Hoover said. No county officials have questioned board members in the intervening months, he said.
"If questions had been asked of the administration of the fire department, some of this could have been cleared up before things got to where they did," Hoover said.
As an example, Hoover cited Perka's finding in which she concluded that the department had allowed the shared use of 14 debit cards. Hoover insisted that the department never allowed more than six cards at one time to be shared among members. A single card controlled by Moriarty is all that is available this year, he said.
He also bristled at Perka's statement that the department "does not have a professional staff maintaining its books."
He cited Moriarty's 20 years experience as an accountant with Meadows Farms Inc. in Chantilly, a firm described on its Web site as one of the nation's largest independently owned nurseries.
Hoover and other board members also cited two security systems with multiple cameras that have been installed in department buildings as evidence of a new commitment to guard against theft and fraud. One of the systems was installed in the building that holds a safe in which more than $1,000 in bingo money disappeared earlier this year, Hoover said.
The board members denied they were accusing county officials of unfairly blaming them for the department's financial irregularities. Hoover said many of the problems were legitimate cause for county concern, despite efforts by the current board to fix them.
Clarke and Warren counties pay much of the department's annual operating budget of $90,000 to $100,000.
Board members struck conciliatory notes at times during the press conference.
Moriarty said the board was open to suggestions from county officials about ways to improve department management.
"It is not us versus them," Hoover said. "We need to move forward."