Former treasurer of volunteer fire company charged with theft

April 12, 2007|By Bradley Olson and Phillip McGowan | Bradley Olson and Phillip McGowan,sun reporters

A former treasurer of the Riviera Beach Volunteer Fire Company has been charged with stealing more than $50,000 through a check-writing scheme, Anne Arundel County police said yesterday, making him the first member of the Pasadena firehouse to face prosecution amid a wide-ranging investigation.

Police have yet to serve an arrest warrant for Kelly T. McColl, 40, who was charged March 31, but they continue to investigate accusations of mismanagement of company funds under former Chief Kenneth B. Hyde Sr. Sacked in February as head of the Baltimore Fire Department's training academy after a recruit's death, Hyde is still acting as chief despite being demoted, several sources said.

McColl, whose last known address was in Surfside Beach, S.C., after leaving Pasadena, wrote dozens of checks from firehouse accounts to pay for his mortgages, credit card bills and car insurance, police said.

Hyde has not been criminally charged; his fellow firefighters have accused him of using the firehouse's money to cover his personal expenses. He admitted using Riviera Beach's Visa card to make ATM withdrawals and pay for trips in his capacity with Baltimore, but said he repaid the money.

Lt. David Waltemeyer, an Arundel County police spokesman, said the investigation into the department's finances remains "very active," although it determined that allegations that a minor was sexually assaulted at the firehouse were unfounded.

Police closed their investigation of volunteers who responded to calls after drinking alcohol in the firehouse, after they were punished internally, according to several former board members.

The county Fire Department, whose investigation led to Hyde's suspension in February, is withholding tens of thousands of dollars in reimbursements for equipment and building maintenance because the company's state charter was revoked in December, said Battalion Chief Michael Cox, a department spokesman. The company technically no longer exists, said Robert Young, associate director of the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation.

McColl could not be located yesterday, and a person answering the phone at Hyde's Pasadena home said he would not comment.

County Executive John R. Leopold called the allegations of misconduct at Riviera Beach "a matter of ongoing concern" but said they do not so far warrant a larger investigation.

"The overwhelming majority of firefighters and fire stations are being managed responsibly and professionally," Leopold said. "However, this administration will not tolerate exceptions to that professionalism, and we will act sternly when those examples of unprofessional behavior are brought to my attention."

The Fire Department launched its investigation in July after Hyde, then a decorated city fire official, and another firefighter accused each other of assault at the firehouse.

It uncovered allegations of sexual activity, pornography on station computers and the firefighters answering calls after drinking, and accused Hyde of bullying firefighters. The report released to the company's board in January recommended suspending Hyde for 60 days and demoting him for 90 days after that.

"Under the leadership practices of Chief Hyde, most personnel indicated that they are powerless to enforce rules and policies," stated the report, which was read at a board meeting.

A newly elected board, which had already started an internal probe of financial mismanagement, discovered the company had not filed tax returns since at least 2000 and that Hyde had for years been using Riviera Beach's credit card for purchases and cash withdrawals across the U.S. and in Canada.

Hyde told the board in January that he had repaid the firehouse in cash and used the Visa because he had declared bankruptcy.

"I told him that night that was no excuse," said Jason Sebald, who resigned March 3 as board president after the ouster of several other board members who had called for the internal probe.

Sebald added that he had also filed for bankruptcy and had no trouble getting a personal credit card.

The board suspended Hyde until he could produce the receipts.

"He blew up," Sebald said. "He got in my face and said, `I thought you were my friend,' like we were supposed to vote in his favor no matter what he did."

Hyde returned to the firehouse a few minutes after midnight April 1, the day the suspension was lifted, Sebald said. He said that Hyde continues to drive the chief's car and wear the chief's uniform.

The new chief, James Evans, declined to comment yesterday.

McColl, who served as the company's treasurer from 2000 to 2005, was charged with one count of theft over $500 and another of felony theft scheme.

An internal audit turned up dozens of checks issued from 2003 to 2005 to banks and vendors not affiliated with Riviera Beach as well as to McColl, including one for $3,600, police said. The checks totaled $50,458.65.

The audit also reported that McColl failed to maintain or keep ledgers -- electronic or paper -- for the accounts he was entrusted to safeguard. Additionally, receipts, canceled checks, statements and invoices generated during his tenure vanished when he left his treasurer position, police said.

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