CUMBERLAND — A former chief of the Clarysville Volunteer Fire Company pleaded guilty Tuesday to a scheme to steal $11,298 from the department’s bar operation during the time he was managing the bar. The plea took place at the Allegany County Circuit Courthouse.
Eric L. Clark, 42, was sentenced to one year in jail, with all but one month suspended, five years probation and the payment of restitution to the department by Allegany County Circuit Court Judge Gary Leasure. He was also told not to have any contact with the department.
“I just made a big mistake. I hurt my family ... and the fire department. I wish I would not have done it. I have definitely learned from this,” Clark told the judge. The scheme took place between Jan.1, 2011, and Oct. 31, 2012, said Fred Voss, an Allegany County assistant state’s attorney.
Clark will be allowed to spend the 30 days on home confinement. In exchange for Clark’s plea to the felony offense, the state dropped three other charges against him. The judge said that because of the nature of the crime, and the amount of money involved, he did not want to completely suspend the sentence. The maximum sentence could have been 15 years in prison and/or a fine of $50,000. However, Clark had no prior offenses and Maryland sentencing guidelines recommend probation in such cases.
The charges came after department members saw discrepancies in the bar accounts and operations, Voss said.
“Due to the nature of how the bar was operated ... it was difficult to track (transactions),” Voss said. One unusual transaction was that Clark paid for his DirecTV bill from bar accounts, Voss said. Also, “The bar was used as an ATM machine,” Voss said. Members would swipe their cards and get cash.
Clark’s attorney, David Schram of the Public Defender’s Office, took pains to distinguish Clark’s case from that of other recent troubles at county volunteer fire departments.
Clark’s case was different because it did not involve impropriety impacting fire and rescue operations, Schram said. “There is nothing that would affect public safety,” Schram said. The bar operation turned into an uncompensated job for Clark, Schram said.
“The scope was more than could reasonably be handled by anyone without experience,” Schram said.
The county’s Emergency Services Board has conducted a series of meetings with the Clarysville Volunteer Fire Company to review the situation and the future of the department, which has personnel issues beyond the loss of funds, county officials have said.
Clarysville joined the ranks of troubled departments in the county, including Baltimore Pike and McCoole. McCoole’s department is no longer in service, but Baltimore Pike is recovering after financial difficulties, including charges against longtime members of the department.
The county has been looking into a way to provide better financial accountability practices for volunteer fire and rescue companies. A better system would protect those services by bolstering public confidence that donated monies are being used for fire and rescue operations.
A county-funded study of financial accountability in the volunteer departments will provide recommendations to guard against bad practices. A request for proposals for the study is already being developed with county commission approval.
Clark left the courtroom in the custody of a deputy to make arrangements for home confinement.
Matthew Bieniek can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.