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Former fire department member told to repay misused funds

By Joe Beck -- jbeck@nvdaily.com

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


This action to reclaim misspent funds was initiated by SFVFD. It was handled by the county because the county has a financial oversight agreement with SFVFD. This is just another step in the process to become fiscally responsible in the eyes of the county.

SFVFD should have initiated changes long before the county stepped in. They had plenty of reasons to do so. Here is part of a letter I have seen that was written on June 17th of this year that shows that the previous treasurer brought up issues long ago & resigned due to the unwillingness of SFVFD to change things.
From letter:
I took the position of Treasurer for 2009 because members expressed concerns about where money was going and who might not be honest. Members agreed that I would be honest and tell them what exactly was happening even if hurt feelings. During my 2009 term as Treasurer there were problems with security. There were so many keys to the Treasurer office that no one could even tell me who had keys. The President demanded to have passwords to everything and I never felt completely secure about anything. I even had someone come in with me every time I worked in order to have duel control in case anything did happen. She was my witness when things had been changed in the computer or when check stubs were left on my desk for unapproved expenses. At the end of 2009 I was not going to take the position again but was assured that these problems would be corrected. We would work together to gain better security and integrity. I believed this and accepted the position as Treasurer again for 2010. We changed locks and yet at least 6 keys were given out to the Treasurer office yet again. It was demanded that I give out the Treasurer passwords to a returning member who held no office and no Board position. I had cancelled at least 10 debit cards that were still out there, some even with members whom never showed up anymore. We reduced the debit cards down to two. This still did not correct problems.
I resigned from Treasurer because of a lot of the same problems that were stated in the audit that was completed and dated as of June 16, 2011. The administration is still pretty much the same now as it was when I resigned. If you were to read the 2011 audit it clearly states that many of the big issues like stolen money, stolen gas & misuse of funds were all after I resigned. We had problems that could have been corrected well before any of these things happened. The President called a special meeting not 2 months before I resigned that outlined the problems I was having. You all know that I brought to your attention that I had not had receipts turned in for 3 months. We had money being spent that I, as Treasurer had no control over. Checks were being written and one debit card was being used without the proper approval. One debit card was even used at an ATM with no receipt as to where the cash had been used. There were bank statements showing money spent at places that I could not understand and could not properly account for in Quickbooks. You all knew I had stopped trying to guess at what to enter into the system. You all knew that I had not produced accurate records at monthly meetings because of this. You knew I was getting frustrated. We had the perfect opportunity at the time of this special meeting to correct these issues, yet the Board chose not to. All of this is what lead to me resigning in April of 2010. I came to understand that the majority of members did not want to change things. They did not want to show integrity and improve the reputation of SFVFD.

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