SBI probing city finance allegations

Published 12:34 am Wednesday, February 19, 2003

By By MIKE VOSS, Contributing Editor
The State Bureau of Investigation is looking into allegations of financial misconduct at the Washington Fire-Rescue-EMS Department.
Dennis Honeycutt, special agent in charge of supervising the SBI's northeast region, confirmed Tuesday his agency received a request Monday from Seth Edwards, district attorney for the Second Judicial District, to investigate the allegations. Beaufort County is part of the Second Judicial District.
Honeycutt said the investigation is in its beginning phase.
The request by Edwards came less than a week after he met with Washington Mayor L. Stewart Rumley to discuss the situation.
In a brief telephone interview from Swan Quarter on Tuesday afternoon, Edwards said, "Based on what the mayor told me, I had some concerns whether wrongdoing occurred."
Edwards said his next step is to wait for the SBI to conclude its investigation and submit a report about its findings to him. After reading the report, Edwards said, he will decide his next steps, which could include filing charges.
Fire-Rescue-EMS Chief Nelson Pyle and Carol Williams, finance director for the city, confirmed Tuesday they have been contacted by the SBI. They declined to comment further. City Manager R.L. Willoughby said Tuesday he has not been contacted by the SBI, but he said the city will cooperate with the SBI investigation.
Washington Police Chief Joe Stringer, in a brief interview Tuesday, said he was contacted by the SBI on Monday. Stringer said his department is not involved in an active investigation of the allegations at this time. Stringer said his department, if asked, will cooperate with other agencies that may investigate the allegations.
City officials have not publicly identified the person or persons who may have misappropriated or stolen money from the fire department.
Last week, the city's human resources department confirmed that a former Fire-Rescue-EMS Department division chief, a 27-year employee, ended his employment with the city Jan. 22.
Last week, Rumley said he was disturbed after the City Council voted 3-2 on Feb. 10 against filing a claim under its public employee blanket bond to recover any funds that might have been misappropriated or stolen from the fire department. The motion was put forth by Mayor Pro Tempore Judy Meier Jennette. She and Councilman Ed Gibson voted for it, while Council members Emma Howard, Richard Brooks and Ed Booth voted against it.
The motion also called for the city to cooperate with the district attorney's office and the city's insurance company, to ascertain the amount of money missing and to recover the funds.
Gibson welcomes the investigation.
"I haven't changed my position one bit. From the start, I thought some action should be taken by the council about the … allegations of theft at the fire department," Gibson said Tuesday during a brief telephone interview.
On Tuesday, Rumley said he chose to take the matter to Edwards because, in part, of his personal convictions. The mayor said he took an "equal but separate" oath when he took office to uphold the federal and state constitutions. That oath, Rumley said, requires him to uphold the laws of the United States and North Carolina.
"I consulted what I consider some of the foremost counsel on municipal law" in North Carolina, Rumley told the Daily News last week. "I found out I have a separate but equal responsibility when it comes to upholding my office."
Executive Editor Rachel Brown Hackney contributed to this report.