KEITH WHITCOMB JR.
BENNINGTON -- The attorney for a former Bennington Rural Fire Department fire chief accused of embezzlement in connection with a raffle in which some winners were not paid said Monday that the charge stems from fire department politics.
Joseph T. Hayes, 44, of Murphy Road in North Bennington, pleaded not guilty in Bennington Superior Court Criminal Division to a felony count of embezzlement. He was released on conditions he not handle money or finances for the Bennington Rural Fire Department.
"Joe is caught up in what can only be described as personal and partisan fire department politics, and that’s a real shame that these men are acting like kids," said Hayes’ attorney, William D. Wright. "And when this case is over, people are going to agree that there’s nothing more than fire department politics."
According to an affidavit by Bennington Police Officer John F. Behan, on Jan. 13 he went to the BRFD firehouse on Orchard Road where he met with department member John Scutt, who had contacted police about fuel being stolen from the fire trucks. Scutt also told Behan about a fire department raffle in which 400 tickets were to be sold for $10 each, but the department only sold 137, which was not enough to pay all the winners. Scutt said Hayes had put the department’s name on the unsold tickets without the department having purchased them. According to Scutt, the department’s treasurer, Shawn Gardner -- who is currently chief -- had not received money from the winnings.
On Jan. 24 Behan spoke to Brenda Churco, who said she bought a ticket in early December and was told the drawing would be Dec. 16. Around Christmas, two members of the department told her she had won, so she called a dispatcher there and confirmed she had won a $75 prize and a $10 prize. She was told a check for $85 would be mailed to her but she never received it.
Behan wrote that according to the ticket Churco bought, the department was raffling off 12 prizes for each of the following amounts: $75, $40, $20, $15, $10, and $5. According to Behan, the BRFD was short $430 to pay all of the winners. He wrote that the total amount paid out, $745, went to people present at the drawing or had some affiliation with the department. He wrote that there is $625 unaccounted for from the 137 tickets sold.
On Jan. 25 Behan met with Scutt and Gardner, who provided him with records from the raffle. Behan wrote there was a list of winners with the names of people affiliated with the department highlighted. Behan said he ultimately spoke to 10 people who won on the raffle but said they were not paid. The department itself did not receiving its winnings, either.
Scutt provided a written statement to police saying that on Dec. 16 he witnessed Hayes put unsold tickets into a container with the sold ones. Scutt said he pointed out to Hayes that those tickets had not been bought and could not go into the raffle. According to Scutt, Hayes said the department owned those unsold tickets because it paid to have them printed, and if they were not entered the department would be out a great deal of money.
Scutt told police that Hayes had people in the office draw tickets and he paid to those present who had won. Scutt said he then put the rest of the money into an envelope which then went into a red bag.
According to Scutt’s statement, on Dec. 18 he was with Hayes at a Prudential Committee meeting and Hayes was looking through a stack of bills. When asked what he was looking for, Hayes said an envelope full of money. Scutt then directed police to speak with Steven Waters, a BRFD member.
Waters told police he saw Hayes place an envelope with money in it into a filing cabinet, and after Hayes said he lost the envelope Waters offered to check the cabinet but was told not to by Hayes, who seemed nervous.
Hayes was arrested on Feb. 20 and told police that in November he was contacted by people who had bought tickets using checks asking their checks be cashed. He said he had given Gardner all money from the raffle, however Gardner told police Hayes never gave him any money from the contest.
Hayes said he requested all department members turn in their tickets and money so he could give them to Gardner. Hayes told police he cut 60 tickets on behalf of the BRFD and said the department paid for the tickets. Behan told him the department may have paid for the tickets to be made but did not buy them.
"Hayes advised that he was only trying to make the ticket sales equal to $2,000 by putting the tickets in the raffle. Hayes advised that he knew there was not enough tickets sold and that he was only trying to make the tickets even to cover the winnings. I asked Hayes if he was told by anyone that he could not place the unpaid tickets in the raffle, which Hayes advised no," wrote Behan.
Hayes said he told Gardner to pay the winners, but Gardner had not. Hayes told police he did not know the name of the bank the department uses and that Gardner, as treasurer, is the only person who can write checks.
According to the affidavit, Hayes told police the missing envelope contained $300 from a firefighter’s family member who wanted to buy a fire helmet. He said it had nothing to do with the raffle and he denied putting money into a red bag, repeating that all raffle money went to Gardner.
Behan wrote that there is $625 unaccounted for, which includes $325 in BRFD winnings, which it should not have had.
According to the affidavit, Waters told police he witness Hayes’ wife, Angela Hayes, draw a ticket, look at the name, then put it back to draw another. In February, Bennington Police told the Banner they had cited Hayes and his wife, however there was no indication in the court’s public computer system that Angela Hayes has been charges with a crime. The Bennington County State’s Attorney’s Office has not yet returned calls.
Last July, Joseph Hayes was charged with disorderly conduct and unlawful mischief after police said he threw a flashlight at a vehicle while at an emergency scene. The state dropped the mischief charge and Hayes went before a reparative board to have the other charge expunged, which according to court records he was successful in doing.
In 2007 Hayes was charged with embezzlement but was given diversion.
Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.