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10/26/2018 11:34:00 AM
Fire department treasurer sentenced to 15 months; restitution tab now $754,000

Scott L. Miley, Herald Bulletin CNHI Statehouse Bureau

INDIANAPOLIS — Firefighters in a rural Hamilton County township couldn’t figure out why they had no funds to buy medical supplies for their ambulance.

Their property tax levy, bringing in about $220,000 annually for firefighting, should have been enough to cover the needs of the Wayne Township Volunteer Fire Department east of Noblesville.

They asked their longtime treasurer, Norman Burgess, to show them bank statements. He did. 

It didn’t clear things up because the treasurer had been writing checks and using debit and credit cards while falsely indicating the withdrawals were for the department. Actually, the withdrawals were for Burgess' personal needs.

On Thursday, Burgess, 44, of Danville, was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison and ordered to pay $139,550 in restitution to the department. He had pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud.

"I'm ashamed of my action and the trust that I violated," Burgess told U.S. District Court Judge James Sweeney.

The $139,550 is in addition to a previous judgment of $615,697 that Burgess, who is the father of four and works as a paramedic, was ordered to pay in a Hamilton County Superior Court decision.

In August, Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill filed a civil lawsuit against Burgess citing the fire department's loss, the costs of an Indiana State Board of Accounts (SBOA) audit and penalties that had to be paid to the IRS. Under Indiana law, the state could seek up to three times the actual loss.

"(The chances of) us seeing any of that money is probably slim or nil," Wayne Township Volunteer Fire Department Chief Ron Taylor said after the federal sentencing.

Burgess had also worked as a paramedic for Madison County departments in Lapel, Markleville and Richland Township, officials said. The federal charge only involves Wayne Township in Hamilton County.

On debit cards alone, Burgess had taken $48,299, including payments to a hockey league, costs for his father's funeral, the purchase of an Iron Maiden key chain and a keyless fob for his Chrysler, in addition to 251 charges at convenience stores. Some convenience store purchases were from stations 1,000 miles away, according to an SBOA audit.

The missing funds meant the all-volunteer department would have to struggle to meet expenses.

The department's 20 unpaid volunteers kept the organization afloat, raising $30,000 among themselves for medical supplies and, for example, the costs of coloring books and kids' helmets for the annual Fire Safety Week at Durbin Elementary School.

“We were within a week of shutting down,” recalled Pam Taylor, public information officer for the rural department. “It left us in a huge bind." 

The department was too trustworthy of a man who had been taking unauthorized payments, totaling $59,656, since 2013, she acknowledged.

Since then, the department has revamped its approach. It spent months rewriting bylaws. No longer does one person serve as secretary-treasurer; separate people are assigned to the two positions.

"That’s just bad," she said. "Not just because of this. We were talking about it before we even knew we had a problem, that one person should not have control over all the money."

Now, department bills and bank statements are available for review at each board meeting. An outside agency has been retained to perform audits. Any purchase over $500 must be approved.

"So far there's been no extra cost," Taylor said. "There's the audit from outside, but that is a cost we're willing to do to make sure we can stay in service for the residents."

Burgess, who said he had an opioid addiction, had been treasurer nearly a decade for the Wayne Township Volunteer Fire Department, paying bills for equipment and payroll in the eastern Hamilton County township with a population of about 8,000.

#YYYY# Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc.

Editor, John C. DePrez Jr.; Executive Editor, Carol Rogers; Publishers: IBRC and IAR

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