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Halfway fire chief suspended

Attorney says Ringer spoke to investigators without company lawyer

May 20, 2010|By HEATHER KEELS

HALFWAY -- The chief of Halfway's volunteer fire company has been suspended for speaking with police and IRS investigators without the fire company's lawyer present, the chief's attorney said.

Jeff Ringer, chief of The Volunteer Fire Co. of Halfway, Md. Inc., was placed on paid administrative leave for 30 days, effective May 3, said Deputy Chief Ed Ernst, who is acting as chief during Ringer's suspension.

Neither Ernst nor fire company President James G. Kimble would say why Ringer had been placed on leave.

"I'm under fire department counsel advice not to discuss the matter," Kimble said.

Ringer's attorney, John R. Salvatore, said Ringer was placed on administrative leave after speaking to Maryland State Police and IRS investigators who were looking into bingo and tip jar operations at the fire company.

"There was supposedly some kind of a directive that they not speak with investigators without counsel being present," Salvatore said. "He spoke to them without counsel being present."

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Salvatore said Ringer spoke only about himself, not about fire department business.

Ringer plans to contest the suspension at a fire company hearing tentatively scheduled for June 1, Salvatore said.

"Some people read a lot into this," Salvatore said. "He's not being investigated as a suspect, he did not speak to investigators as a whistle blower, he's not a whistle blower. There's no smoking guns here."

Ringer declined to comment, referring questions to Salvatore.

Maryland State Police spokesman Greg Shipley confirmed state police were conducting a criminal investigation that involves the Halfway fire company, but said he could not discuss any details.

James B. Hovis, director of the Washington County Gaming Office, said that investigation began last fall when a member of the fire company asked Hovis to help look into bingo and tip jar operations. Hovis said he looked into the allegations and, as a result of his investigation, notified state police.

On Oct. 5, the fire company announced that bingo games had been suspended after a consultant presented the results of a review of the company's operations. Bingo resumed Oct. 23 with new volunteers and "more accountability," Kimble said then.

The fire company's attorney, John Urner, would not comment on the investigation or Ringer's suspension.

"The company's view of all of this is that it's an internal company matter," Urner said.

Salvatore said that when the investigation is finished, "everybody will know a lot more about what's going on."

"I don't know that any money is missing from the fire department, and neither does the fire department, as I understand it," he said.

The fire company has been holding bingo games, which account for about 40 percent of its revenue, for more than 55 years, Kimble said in October.

In the tax year that began July 1, 2007, and ended June 30, 2008, the company earned a net income of $206,739 from bingo, according to tax records posted online.

In October, Washington County officials revised the annual financial reporting forms that companies must file with the Division of Emergency Services to require details about gaming-related revenue, expenses and profits. Hovis said then that he was concerned about a lack of record-keeping by some companies.

Washington County Commissioners President John F. Barr said Thursday that some volunteer company officials "fussed" about the requirements for more detail about their finances.

"We've been told by the various companies that frankly it's none of our business," Barr said. "Well, if we're giving a dollar of taxpayer funding to assist these organizations, I think we have the right to have full disclosure as to their fundraising."

The county's fiscal year 2010 budget included $3.8 million for the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association. The commissioners on Tuesday passed a budget for the 2011 fiscal year that includes $5.2 million for the association.

Barr said that until the investigation is completed, he thought the county should continue to provide budgeted funding to the Halfway fire company, but he would encourage his fellow commissioners to withhold funding for equipment or other capital requests for the company.

Kimble, Ernst and Washington County Director of Emergency Services Kevin L. Lewis all stressed that the company's emergency services were continuing without interruption.

Ernst said he is making sure the company responds to calls with adequate manpower.

"Granted, we want the fire chief back, but it hasn't disrupted our operations," Ernst said. "The fire trucks are still responding, and our biggest priority is protecting the community, which, at this point, we've had no issues."

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