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Officials ignored volatile situation in arena deal

| Thursday, March 15, 2007

An explosive financial review of the Washington Township Volunteer Fire Department alleges that a former fire chief, his girlfriend and the son of a township official were involved in a series of transactions that cost the department as much as $250,000.

But the critical audit fails to mention that the township's volunteer firefighters were also harmed financially by the indifference of the law enforcement community.

When the first whiffs of financial impropriety at the department began floating across the township, Fayette County District Attorney Nancy Vernon dismissed requests to look into the situation, saying there wasn't enough information to substantiate claims of illegal activity.

After Vernon failed to do her job, the state Attorney General's Office took a bye, allowing the then-financially struggling fire department to fend for itself.

Well, fend it did.

The department reached into its depleted treasury to come up with $3,000 to hire the Pittsburgh-based Nottingham Group to conduct a forensic accounting investigation of the depatment's finances during the reign of former Chief Randy Smalley.

That resulted in the release Tuesday night of the report that alleged:

n A portion of $75,000 given to the department by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to purchase pagers, portable radios and protective gear was paid to a company owned by Smalley and cannot be accounted for, the report states. As a result, the fire department was forced to repay part of the grant to FEMA.

n Property owned by the department that had been assessed at more than $100,000 was sold in 2001 to Michael Latkanich, son of township Supervisor Joanne Latkanich, for $35,000. The new owner failed to notify tax officials of a change in the status of the property from nonprofit to for-profit and did not pay any taxes to the state or township for several years. The property, now owned by Michael Latkanich's sister, Rochelle, currently is up for sale with a listing price of $229,000 after Michael Latkanich unsuccessfully tried to sell it on eBay for $240,000.

n A house owned by the fire department was leased to Smalley and his girlfriend, Roxanne Ceccarelli, for 30 months, but records indicate they never paid any rent.

n Investigators were unable to identify the winners of a boat valued at more than $30,000 that was a prize in a 2001 department fundraiser. The investigators' report states fire department members "have alleged that evidence indicates that Smalley did not distribute the boat to a prize- winner, but actually kept it for himself." Investigators could not prove that Smalley kept the boat, but the matter is under investigation.

n Investigators cited a possible conflict of interest when Smalley, an electrician, performed more than $13,000 in electrical work for the township without obtaining any bids or estimates from other contractors.

After already spending three large for the audit, the department has dipped into its treasury again to hire Pittsburgh attorney Joseph Paletta to determine whether to press a civil lawsuit or criminal charges in the case.

The firefighters also are paying to send copies of the Nottingham Group's report to Vernon, Attorney General Tom Corbett and the Internal Revenue Service.

Hopefully, somebody in one of those offices will finally take a look at the situation to determine whether any charges are warranted.

That is, after all, what they are paid to do.

While they're doing that, they also should take a look at the circumstances behind the demise of Community Ambulance Service, which provided emergency medical services to the township until it was forced to close its doors after inexplicably running out of money.

That's another instance where Vernon, Corbett and company have turned a deaf ear to repeated calls for an investigation.

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