A lieutenant in the Baltimore County Fire Department pleaded guilty yesterday to participating in a pyramid scheme, ending the state's lengthy and controversial grand jury investigation into a get-rich-quick frenzy that swept Maryland in 1994.
Lt. Michael S. Nace, who had vowed to fight his Nov. 6 indictment with two fellow firefighters, entered his plea before Judge J. Norris Byrnes in Baltimore County Circuit Court.
With the plea, In so doing, the decorated firefighter with 22 years of experience avoided two more serious charges, including evading state income taxes.
Through his attorney Stephen M. Schenning, Lieutenant Nace agreed to a suspended one-month jail term and one year's probation; to pay a $10,000 fine; to make a $3,500 contribution to the state Criminal Injury Compensation Fund; and to perform 180 hours of community service. He also must file amended state and federal income tax returns for 1994.
The guilty plea caps an investigation that several grand jurors criticized as selective enforcement of a law defied by hundreds of others, including a city prosecutor, a deputy chief in the Fire Department and the president of the county firefighter's union local.
"We know the attorney general's office spoke with about 400 people who were involved in the pyramid," Mr. Schenning said. "The case would have been interesting to try."
H. Scott Lewis, an assistant attorney general with the Criminal Investigations Division, said the plea by Lieutenant Nace "closes our investigation. "
"It was one thing to say someone participated; it's another to say who got the ball rolling. We wanted the people responsible for organizing and promoting the pyramid game."
Lieutenant Nace, 42, of Perry Hall was the third member of the county Fire Department -- alleged organizers of a local pyramid game -- to plead guilty after the yearlong investigation by state police and the grand jury.
Last month, Michael T. Mather, 36, an emergency medical technician from Fallston, pleaded guilty to establishing and promoting a pyramid organization. In December, Michael K. Day, 31, a fire specialist from Carney, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and violating Maryland's pyramid law.
All three serve at the fire station in Fullerton.
Court documents show that Mr. Mather grossed $18,000 in the game and reinvested more than $9,000 for himself and acquaintances.
He will be sentenced April 25. Mr. Day, who at the time of the investigation was vice president of Firefighters' Local 1311 in the county, will be sentenced March 19.
Meanwhile, internal investigations continue in the county's fire and police departments, spokesmen said.
Battalion Chief Mark F. Hubbard said the Fire Department's internal affairs unit "is still responding to rumors of departmental personnel having played or promoted the scheme while on duty or on county property."
He said any possible administrative action against the three firefighters who pleaded guilty will be determined after Mr. Day and Mr. Mather are sentenced.
In November 1994, the pyramid game hit its peak with bus loads of firefighters, police officers and others traveling to hotels in Washington D.C. -- where the game was legal -- and each investing $1,500 for a possible $12,000 payback in the scheme called "Friends Helping Friends."
But Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. began an investigation after dozens of players complained they lost their investments.
Pub Date: 3/05/96