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September 15, 2011 - 10:57am

Corfu Fire District appoints ethics panel to investigate credit card use

posted by Howard B. Owens in corfu, Corfu Fire District.

At the end of a sometimes tense meeting, the Corfu Fire District Board of Trustees voted to appoint an ethics panel to look into alleged financial improprities by the district's treasurer and a former fire chief.

The panel will make a recommendation to the district board on how to handle the matter.

The alleged improprieties were disclosed publicly by the NYS Comptroller's Office on Monday in a report that accused the district board of not keeping proper financial records and not reviewing them properly, which led to the board not catching alleged unauthorized use of district credit cards.

The ethics panel will include David Saleh, a volunteer firefighter who often helps the district and the Corfu Fire Department (a separate entity from the district) on legal matters. Saleh is past president of the Genesee County Bar Association.

Pushing hard for the board to take action on the matter was Greg Lang, president of the Corfu Fire Department.

While Lang (in the background of the bottom photo) never explicitly called for the district to fire its treasurer, Shari Salim, he did talk about the fact he has been contacted by the Genesee County Sheriff's Office regarding a possible criminal investigation. He said he was expected to call the Sheriff's Office today and report the results of the board meeting. What happened, he said, could determine whether the Sheriff's Office would open an investigation, or whether he would ask for such an investigation.

"I'm going to have to do what I have to do," Lang said several times.

“I’m telling you right now, if this thing doesn’t go right, we’re going to lose members," Lang said at one point. "There’s no question about it. You guys up there ain't good for nothin' if you ain't got members back here. ...I've had members call me, I've had members come up to me and say, 'I'm not going to be in a fire department where this is going on.”

Salim (in the second photo, far end of the table) is the daughter of district board Chairman Bob Ammon and the brother of Jeff Ammon, the former Corfu chief also named in the comptroller's report for allegedly using a district credit card for personal purchases.

She is a paid staff member of the district, drawing a stipend to serve as treasurer and secretary.

Ammon, a former chief, has also twice been named firefighter of the year for Corfu.

Salim reportedly admitted to the state auditor that she used the credit card for personal purchases. What wasn't clear from the report -- and came out at the meeting -- was that Salim and Ammon paid back the district prior to the audit. However, the board never found out about the purchases or the payback until after the auditor started going through the books.

The district board, while including volunteers for the department, is elected by Corfu residents. The board collects taxes and manages some of the revenue used to help fund the fire department.

At one point during the meeting, Bob Ammon (sitting in the foreground, second photo) became visibly distraught and made an impassioned speech about the toll the finance matter has taken on him. He said it was "tearing him up" over what it meant for his kids, the department and said he'd received threats.

"I thought we were a sisterhood or a brotherhood, but the crap I hear – my phone rings constantly," said Ammon, who's been with the department for 52 years. "'What’s this I read on Facebook?' they say. 'What’s this text message about?' It's terrible.

"I was told I was going to be friggin’ arrested the other night," saying later that if the board failed in its oversight, "we screwed up."

"We do the things we can do and I’m sorry," Ammon added. "I’ll apologize if I’m the guy who is going to get arrested and go to jail. I just turned 70 years old and they’re going to come, with my broken knee, and lock me up? I’m just sick about it."

It was that kind of talk -- the rumors of arrests and threats of arrest -- that drove Saleh (foreground, bottom photo) to get involved in Thursday's meeting, the attorney said.

"There are a couple of things that really crawled under my skin," Saleh said. "For months we've been hearing about allegations of criminal conduct and people are going to get arrested, but I read the audit report and I see nothing in there that indicates any criminal conduct."

Lang wondered how it could not be a criminal matter, saying it seemed to him that using somebody else's credit card without permission would be stealing.

"There's been talk of a credit card policy," Lang said. "Do you really need somebody to tell you not to use a credit card?"

One of the recommendations by the auditor was that the board write a credit card policy, which the board said it would do in its written response authored by Ammon.

As for whether there is criminal conduct, Saleh said in order for the use to be considered criminal there would need to be proof of intent and he said from reading the audit report, he didn't see the intent.

After some more back-and-forth over whether there was criminal conduct, Bruce Fauth basically said, "enough."

"There is a direct implication on the fire district and therefore the fire department," said Fauth (inset photo). "Therefore, I don't care about the criminality of it. I care about whether it's right or wrong and how it reflects on the fire department."

There was a lot of discussion over how much interest and fees was accrued on the credit cards -- the report said $1,600 -- and how much interest has been paid -- the report said $380 has been paid.

It's unclear how the rest of the balance was paid. The report states that Shari Salim and Jeff Ammon repaid the amounts they allegedly charged on the cards.

An examination of interest accrued and payments made will be part of the investigation by the ethics panel, which will require it to examine all of the credit card statements.

The panel will also look at the purchases, whether the district's sales-tax exemption was used, whether the personal use as a "mistake," what documents may have been altered and why the board wasn't made aware of the personal use.

After the public meeting, the district board went into closed session, permissible to discuss personnel issues, and after the closed session announced the formation of the ethics panel with Saleh heading up the investigation.

Lang questioned whether Saleh -- whom he said is friends with Ammon family -- could be impartial.

Saleh said it was his goal to be impartial and he promised an objective examination of the district records.

"I want to do this as a member, not as a lawyer," Saleh said. "I want us as a group to do this right so we set a precedent as to how we're going to handle this if it comes up again in the future. This is too painful for everybody involved for it to be done the way it's been done."

Lisa Falkowski
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Joined: Jun 23 2009 - 10:29am

Someone (maybe on another site) asked readers to review the entire report before passing judgment. I did - twice. I'm embarrassed and angered by the actions of those officers. If they were paid employees in almost any other situation, they would be facing legal charges. Shame on all of you.

Irene Will
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Joined: Feb 2 2009 - 2:01pm

It's a shame. These Volunteer Fire Departments are DEPENDED upon by many, many people. I hope this doesn't errode the effectiveness of the Fire Deparment. Money can be replaced. The lives that these people save are more important.

Kyle Couchman
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Joined: Dec 25 2009 - 8:54am

Sure Irene then we'll just turn a blind eye to the "Money" issues involved here, thats the answer. Yeah right, I'm sure the morale of the fire dept will be effected but do you really think if this whole fire dept collapses it will leave people uncovered? This is a basic service it has to be provided to some degree. If your upset at possiblity of not being covered or a delay in getting saved because of this "money" problem then you need to voice your concerns to the people involved in the issue, because they didnt have to spend the money the are accused of spending.

Anyone in this line of work has to be expected to be held to a higher standard when they abuse the system to their advantage. As Lisa pointed out in the private sector they would have been facing legal charges at worst, fired and drummed out of their profession at the least.

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