By Joe Beck -- firstname.lastname@example.org
More than year after a financial scandal rocked the Shenandoah Farms Volunteer Fire Department, the legal system has held someone accountable.
Warren County General District Court Judge Dale Houff ordered a former volunteer with the fire department to repay $1,650 at the end of a bench trial Wednesday.
Court documents say the defendant, Pat Pierce, misused department funds during a three- day EMS training symposium in Norfolk in Nov. 2010.
A letter from County Attorney Blair D. Mitchell sent to Pierce in March spells out the accusation against her: "According to records, you registered for three days of symposium sessions ... but only attended the first day. You stayed at the Marriott six nights from Nov. 9 to Nov. 15, despite only attending one day of the symposium. And you used a gift card for seven days of per diem expenses, although the hotel provided a complimentary buffet breakfast, and although you attended only a day of sessions."
Court documents show that Pierce fought back against the accusation. She said the department leadership "in a meeting in (November), while we were at the symposium, that we were wrong, so no matter what we did, they were gonna find something wrong."
Pierce's "grounds for defense" document states she had previously taken most of the classes she was scheduled to attend at the symposium so "we went to other classes we thought would be better."
Mitchell said Thursday that Pierce failed to show persuasive proof she had taken those alternate classes.
He said two other volunteers who attended the symposium with her and faced similar accusations have responded to county demands that they repay the money. Nicki Pate repaid $300 sought from her for per diem expenses and Warren LeCompte repaid $166.80 in room service and per diem, Mitchell said.
Pierce, LeCompte and Pate are the only three members or former members of the fire department to receive any penalties in a scandal that led Warren County to assume responsibility for much of the department's financial affairs.
The scandal also spawned an audit that contained scathing criticism of the department's financial management practices and a criminal investigation by the Virginia State Police. The results of the investigation were forwarded to Clarke County Commonwealth's Attorney Suzanne (Suni) Mackall, but she declined to file charges.
The scandal also created bitter divisions among former and current department members. At one point, the Warren County Sheriff's Office investigated an incident in which one former department member said someone had shot at the side of his house.
Mitchell said the county faces an uncertain process in collecting the money it is seeking from Pierce.
"I don't know if she has assets we can get or not," Mitchell said.
The process could require summoning her back to court, questioning her under oath about the extent of financial assets and possibly seizing money through garnishment, or attachments and liens on property, he said.
Mitchell said the outcome of the case sent an important message, even if the county has to return to court to collect the money.
"I feel it was a proper result," he said. "The (fire department) board of directors expected