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New Market fire investigation questioned

By Sally Voth -- svoth@nvdaily.com

The Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors plan to ask Commonwealth's Attorney Amanda Wiseley for an update into the investigation of past misdeeds at the New Market Fire Department.

The board was responding to a plea from New Market resident and former volunteer firefighter Sonny Mongold. Mongold spoke at the end of the board's meeting Tuesday.

He said the department had been investigated 10 years ago, and again in 2008.
The fire department has long had a troubled history.

Former ladies auxiliary chairwoman Mary Lou McAlexander -- wife of former chief Danny McAlexander -- was arrested earlier this year on a charge of embezzling from the department.

McAlexander was one of seven department members removed from the department following a forensic investigator's analysis of the agency. That investigator, William C. Barrett III, reported to the Board of Supervisors in November 2008 that he'd discovered numerous financial irregularities, including money spent on computer equipment that was not at the station, and money from the junior firefighters' checking account going toward a down payment for a personal vehicle.

More than $30,000 worth of probable fraud was found, and another $25,000 worth of expenditures that needed further inspection.

County funding for the department was cut off at the time.

Several years ago, two volunteers with the company were convicted of a series of arsons in Shenandoah and Rockingham counties.

That came several years after a financial control board was created by the department, the New Market Town Council and firehouse mortgage holder F&M Bank to monitor the department's money and monitor the return of bingo.

At the time, the fire department owed $31,000 worth of back taxes from 1999 bingo prizes. And, it was looking to raise more than $80,000 to pave its parking lot. Large bingo prizes and poor financial management had left the company basically bankrupt.

The overdue taxes were paid in February 2001.

In 2002, several fire department officers and others resigned, and there were also shake-ups on the control board.

Earlier this year, the fire department's latest chief, Robbie Smith, said his department was suffering from a critical lack of volunteers, and has asked the county to provide 24-hour career staff.

The fire department merged with the rescue squad a year ago.

Mongold said town residents are unwilling to donate to the volunteer company until suspicions are dispelled.

"We've got a real problem here," he told the supervisors Tuesday. "They think it's a little Chicago. You're not going to improve the volunteer system in New Market until this cloud is lifted."

Mongold said he'd spent a number of years with the department, but, "I had to get out."
"I couldn't be involved in corrupt activity that was going on," he said. "I think it's being run on an honest basis now, but still the perception is still there."

District 3 Supervisor David Ferguson asked County Administrator Doug Walker if there had been any updates on the investigation from the Commonwealth's Attorney's Office.

Walker said there hadn't.

"Is it appropriate for us to ask them?" Ferguson asked.

Walker replied, "I don't see why not. We've asked in the past for status updates and those updates have been periodic, not regular."

Ferguson asked if it'd be appropriate to ask Wiseley to attend a board meeting so all the supervisors and the public could get information that isn't too sensitive to release.

"I would think making such a request would be appropriate," County Attorney Jay Litten said.

Wiseley said in a Tuesday phone interview that District 1 Supervisor Dick Neese had come by to set up an appointment to discuss the issue. She wasn't prepared to comment on the investigation.

"This is not a problem that has been created by the new commonwealth's attorney, who's only been in office less than six months," Ferguson said. "This is a problem that was created that has not been taken care of."

District 5 Supervisor Dennis Morris said if Wiseley felt uncomfortable sharing the information at a public meeting, she could give the supervisors a closed-session briefing.

Supervisors Chairman Conrad Helsley said the board had had a closed session in the past with former Commonwealth's Attorney Albert T. Mitchell. Mitchell now works part-time in Wiseley's office.


It takes a lot for a community that has seen their fire department crack and have the issues it has had to trust again. How can they feel that their hard earned money, which is so much more precious now in this economy, would be used for the benefit of the fire department and the community they serve? It is understandable. People feel let down, but I think the "house" has been cleaned enough now for the department to run better.

Many are of the opinion that the fire department investigation has not gone deep enough. There are those that fear it may go back to the late 90’s/early 2000’s (it should) and expose others that were involved directly or indirectly with the department’s finances. ABS

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