Investigation focuses on Hardy fire chief

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Faces charge of forgery in connection with misuse of department funds

By Tom Wilmoth

    The volunteer fire chief of the Hardy Volunteer Fire Company has been the target of a four-month investigation by the Virginia State Police for the possible mismanagement of department funds.

    Bedford County Fire and Rescue Chief Jack Jones said Hardy Fire Chief Jeffrey Lee Shifflett has been placed on administrative leave from the department.

    He has already been charged with one count of forgery and could face additional charges. According to Bedford County Commonwealth’s Attorney Randy Krantz the investigation potentially involves tens of thousands of dollars.

    Shifflett also serves as a volunteer deputy fire marshal with Bedford County Fire and Rescue and had been assisting on the investigation of last week’s fire of the home of Wesley Earnest at Smith Mountain Lake. Earnest, a former high-school administrator, has been charged with first-degree murder in connection with the death of his estranged wife in Forest in December 2007.

    Shifflett has served as chief of the Hardy Volunteer Fire Company for 20 years. Last Thursday state police investigators with the Bureau of Criminal Investigation searched his home at the 3900 block of Turner Branch Rd. The investigation has been ongoing for several months.

    The forgery charge alleges that Shifflett forged a document concerning a fire department bank account, specifically forging someone else’s name on a document to create a fictitious debit account, Krantz stated. Forgery convictions  carry  the possibility  of a one  to 10-year sentence. Krantz said additional charges could be filed following sessions of a Bedford County special grand jury in April and May.

    Krantz added the state police headed up the investigation in order to diffuse any impression of conflict of interest, since a county department was involved, and because the state police are better suited to handle financial crime investigations.

    The search warrant, filed by State Police special agent Garland R. Snead Thursday, stated that the search was in connection with an investigation into “embezzlement by officers, etc., of public or other funds” and “forgery.”

    The search warrant was to include Shifflett’s home located at 3910 Turner Branch Rd. in Bedford County, including buildings, vehicles, wallets, pockets, purses and “locations at this address where the items might be found.”

    In the search warrant, Snead indicated that information had been received from members of the Hardy Volunteer Fire Company, “who have personal knowledge of the financial practices and responsibilities of the company” and that the information the members provided “has been verified by independent investigation and found to be accurate pertaining to transactions related to accounts that belong to the fire company.”

    Items being searched for included “all credit, debit, bank, purchasing or fuel cards, cash, financial documents, instruments, statements, invoices, receipts or records related to the Hardy Volunteer Fire Co.,” as well as Shifflett, Deborah Lynn Shifflett, Wanda Dooley Shifflett and Ashley Leigh Simmons. The warrant included all firearms, mobile telephones, televisions and any property purchased from “Gander Mountain, Sportsman’s Warehouse, New London Tractor and Equipment, Vinton Pawn Shop, Super Muscle Parts, Summit Racing, Quadratec Essentials, Extreme 4X4, Powers Tractor and Equipment, Wal-Mart, Iowa Farm Equipment, The Smart Farmer, Northern Tool and Equipment, Lowes, Trader Jerry’s II or Vinton Saw and Mower.”

    The warrant also covered any computers or computer systems including fixed or external hard drives, DVDs, CDs, thumb drives, floppy disks, optical storage and writing devices, or any other fixed or removable data storage device and documentation related to the use or storage of computer media. That could include screen names, passwords, online identification, logs and account information. Those items were to be seized and forensically examined by computer specialists.

    The warrant’s facts to argue for probable cause noted that the Hardy Volunteer Fire Company, located on Bandy Mill Road in Hardy, has six fire department vehicles, each of which has a “Shell” credit card to be used for fuel purchases. The warrant noted that Shifflett keeps one of those vehicles, a Ford F-250 pickup, at his residence.

    In all, the warrant noted that the fire company has 11 cards issued to it from Shell, and that as department vehicles were sold, cards were not destroyed or canceled. “Ten of the Shell credit cards are being used to purchase a disproportionate amount of fuel per month when compared to the amount of training and fire calls to which the company responds,” the warrant stated. The warrant noted that three of the Shell credit cards are not accounted for, but have had recent charges. It went on to state that the investigation showed that Jeffrey Shifflett and his family members allegedly used the fire department Shell cards to purchase fuel for non fire department vehicles. Other family members living at the home mentioned in the warrant included Wanda Shifflett (his mother), Deborah Shifflett (his wife), Ashley Simmons (a stepdaughter), Kayla Simmons (a stepdaughter) and Cory Shifflett (a son).

    The warrant noted that the fire company has two VISA credit cards and alleged that Shifflett’s card had been used for “numerous purchases at the Vinton Pawn Shop, including at least one firearm.” It also noted that records allege that Shifflett had used the VISA card to “purchase clothing and assorted items from Gander Mountain, Sportsman’s Warehouse and other businesses that are not consistent with the needs of the Hardy Fire Company.”

    The warrant went on to state that the fire company has two checking accounts with Wachovia Bank and that Shifflett had a checking account debit card and checks for one of the accounts. “Records indicate that the debit card and checks have been used for purchases at Wal-Mart and other businesses that are not consistent with the needs of the Hardy Volunteer Fire Company,” the warrant alleged.

    The search warrant went on to state that records allegedly indicated that there were other purchases from out-of-state suppliers that conduct business online from fire company accounts. “The amounts and the items carried by several of the vendors are not consistent with the needs of a fire company,” the warrant alleged.

    The warrant also alleged that there were “frequent cash withdrawals” from fire company accounts of several hundred dollars each by Shifflett that were inconsistent with department financial operations. “There are checks for thousands of dollars to Jeffrey Shifflett that in the memo section list training,” the warrant alleged. “There are no records, receipts or training material indicating training was received by any member of the fire company, including Shifflett, related to these payments.”

    Krantz said that embezzlement is a form of grand larceny for every illegal transaction of $200 or more. Each transaction could potentially represent a separate charge. Embezzlement convictions carry the potential of a one to 20 year sentence.

    Krantz added that money laundering charges could also be considered. While usually associated with organized crime or drugs, Krantz said under state statutes it can be considered when a person uses a financial or negotiable instrument, such as a credit card, to commit a felony. Money laundering convictions can have up to a 40 year prison sentence and a $500,000 fine.

    In pursuing the case, Krantz said he has a three-fold goal:

    • Identify the scope of any misuse of department funds and to determine the appropriate accountability;

    • Get restitution of any misused funds back to the department; and

    • Use the incident as a “teachable moment” to try and prevent such incidents in the future.

    Krantz said such investigations can erode “the public trust” of departments. “Nothing is more fundamental to this community than our fire and rescue squads,” he said, adding that “an overwhelming majority do a very good job of managing their funds.” He said the goal would be to “raise the awareness of financial ethics, to get it to the point of avoiding even the impression of wrong-doing.”

    Krantz said a goal would be to help departments set up the proper infrastructure to prevent such misuse of funds. “There’s a ton of information that can be delivered to them,” he said. “That might be one of the positive things that comes out of this.”

    Just managing the funds can be a full time job, Krantz said. “We ought to give them all the help we can to help them do that.”

    As far as this case, Krantz said additional charges will be presented based upon the belief of criminal intent as opposed to negligent judgment. That will include looking at the use of department funds by other family members. “That’s what has to be sorted out now,” he said.

    Krantz said it’s important, that the department shouldn’t suffer as a result of this investigation. “That is a fine department out there. They’re the victim as well as the public. ...They need even more support because they’re there when we call them.”

    While the investigation is ongoing, Hardy Assistant Fire Chief Eric Shell will be serving as acting chief for that department, Jones said.

    Jones, who met with department volunteers Thursday evening, said the department continues to function and is running calls. He also said that any charges should not reflect on the department itself and that the department needs donations to operate. “They really need every penny they get,” he said. “They are hard-working people and they use donations wisely.”

    Jones said volunteer fire and rescue personnel throughout the county provide a valuable service to the community. He said he told the department members to hold their heads high. Jones added that any charges that might result from the investigation are not an embarrassment to the department as a whole.

    He also said the department continues to serve the community. “We want to assure the community that they do have a fire department out there.” He said he told department members: “You are the department, not just one person.”

    Jones said he wants the justice process to work out in the case. “They’re going to continue to take calls,” he said of the department.

    Jones said each of the 24 fire and rescue departments operate independently and handle their own funds. Bedford County Fire and Rescue does not provide any audits for the departments and each has its own checks and balances to manage funds. He said some of the departments have suggested the county help with audits.

    Each department received $34,600 in operating funds from the county this year, but the departments are not required to give an accounting to the county as to how those funds are spent. “What they do with them we really don’t know,” he said. He said sometimes accounting guidelines in the departments can become less stringent over time.

    He said this case might prompt a review of the current system. “Now is probably a good time (for a review),” he said. “It’s something we’ve discussed.”

    Jones said a master study conducted several years ago on Bedford County Fire and Rescue suggested audits be conducted. “That’s just going to help them,” he said of that process. Jones added “it’s really a mixed bag” of how current departments audit themselves.

    Shifflett’s volunteer fire company truck was returned to the station Thursday afternoon. He is scheduled to appear in General District Court on the forgery charge for an attorney advisement on April 16.