The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is reviewing details of an 2020 audit conducted on the St. James Lanark Volunteer Fire Department which concluded there were more than $35,000 in “questionable expenditures” during an 18-month period in 2018 and 2019.
Gretl Plessinger, a spokeswoman for FDLE, said the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office had provided the department with documents related to the work it had been pursuing on the fire department.
That work pertained to details of a June 2020 audit by Roberson and Associates on the fire department’s finances between Jan. 2018 and June 2019.
“We got the request just before Christmas, and (two weeks ago) we did get information that we needed,” said Plessinger. “At this point it is not a full investigation, it is a preliminary review. If it’s determined if there’s probable cause, it will move to a full investigation.
“We do have some questions and it will depend on information we receive going forward,” she said.
Sheriff A.J. Smith said his office asked FDLE to get involved because he felt there was a need to bring trained forensic examiners to bear on the matter, “We simply don’t have that expertise,” he said.
Roberson’s audit determined the department had nearly $114,000 in income during that time period, merely all of it from revenues received from the county based on MSBU (Municipal Service Benefits Unit) assessment on Lanark area properties. During that period, the department made nearly $168,000 in disbursements.
“We found a total of $35,419 in questionable expenditures during the period, some based on the nature of expense and some based on lack of documentation or explanation of the expenditure,” wrote Roberson.
At the time period in question, the department’s fire chief and chief operating officer was Marc Goodwin, with Joellen Chandler as treasurer, Joyce Isetts as secretary, and John Chandler and David Curry as the assistant fire chiefs.
Curry has since then become fire chief and chairs the board.
Roberson’s report determined the use of the fire department building as a residence was not necessarily an improper use of funds, since the building and property are not owned by the department, but that payment of utilities by MSBU funds was not proper.
The audit also called into question the practice of not maintaining MSBU funds in a separate bank account, as well as the failure to present a detailed report of expenditures to the board on a regular basis.
It also questioned the fire department’s failure to maintain an inventory of computers, tools and equipment. “Several computers were purchased and used for business and personal use,” the report noted.
The audit also noted the fire department had failed to keep records of donor receipts, had not filed its non-profit status with the Internal Revenue Service, had not filed required tax filings, and had not filed with the state its non-profit exemption from state sales taxes.
Among the questionable expenditures listed in Roberson’s audit was nearly $5,000 in which there had been no description; $4,900 for a tractor purchase; $4,800 for groceries and about $1,300 for meals; $1,700 for an airline ticket and funeral expenses; an $1,100 cash withdrawal; about $1,600 for shirts; and $1,100 for fruit trees.
The current board, headed by Curry, has come under increasing pressure from a concerned citizens group headed by Victoria Hart. She has been vocal in her questions to the Lanark fire department board, which also includes Curry’s sister as well as his girlfriend.
Hart has shared her objections with the county commission as well as to the fire department, which has ejected her from, and adjourned, its meetings.
Chief among the citizens’ concerns has been its alleged failure to provide copies of the fire department’s bylaws to Lanark residents who ask for them.
After hearing of Hart’s concerns, the county commission has referred the matter to County Attorney Michael Shuler.
Shuler, who has termed the department “dysfunctional” in his remarks to commissioners, has said the department’s operational issues are regulated by, and under the purview, of the state.