Former fire president says he was ousted for blowing whistle

-McKEES ROCKS-


By Jamie Wiggan


Several firefighters say they plan to leave the McKees Rocks Volunteer Fire Department after learning no charges will be brought against their chief from an investigation into claims of credit card misuses.


Deputy Chief Jim Tarbert and life members Ed Maritz, Nick Petrunio and John Kadlecik say they were shunned for assisting with the investigation and have no confidence in their leader even after police decided not to charge him.


“We’re the good guys,” said Petrunio. “We did everything we’re supposed to, and this is how we were repaid.”


County police began the investigation Jan. 12, after Tarbert presented reports to McKees Rocks officials of irregular gasoline purchases recorded on one of the company’s credit cards. The card is funded by the borough, and Tarbert said Council President Archie Brinza and Substitute Manager LeeAnn Wozniak encouraged him to pass the information on to the McKees Rocks Police Department, which turned it over immediately to the county.


Two months later, a county spokesperson said the investigation has concluded without charges.

“We presented the facts and circumstances learned throughout our investigation to the District Attorney’s Office,” Matthew Mineard, county police spokesman, wrote in an email statement.


“With regard to the Fire Chief, the facts do not give rise to any criminal charges for which a successful prosecution is likely. We will close our investigation at this time.”


During a meeting convened by borough leaders Jan. 26, Tarbert and others present said Fire Chief Don Baird acknowledged using the company gas card to fill his personal vehicle, saying he believed he was entitled to do so because he drives his car to fire scenes.


Company receipts show Baird spent approximately $700 during November and December on unleaded gasoline, which is only used to fuel the department’s utility truck. All other vehicles use diesel.


Now the investigation is closed, Brinza said the borough will meet with fire department leadership in the coming weeks to resolve any lingering issues and prevent repeat scenarios. He said the situation was allowed to happen in the first place because the borough does not have a policy spelling out the permitted uses for the fire company’s gas expenses.


“We are gonna meet with the fire department and we are gonna come up with the wording that everybody understands,” Brinza said.


The borough will ask for compensation on any monies spent for personal usage, Brinza added.


Tarbert, the former company president, said he no longer trusts Baird and the officers despite the outcome, and said he was pressured to squash the investigation after they learned of his involvement.

“I cannot put my faith in the people down there, with the leadership thereof,” he said.

Tarbert’s presidency was revoked a month after the investigation began during a company board meeting Feb. 15. He still holds the title of deputy chief.


A document prepared by unnamed company members titled “Tarbert Concerns” lays out three pages of alleged misconduct leveled against the former president. The majority of it deals with his handling of the investigation and the subsequent conflict it introduced to the department.


Among the concerns, the document states Tarbert unilaterally suspended Fire Chief Donald Baird and his fiance Ashleigh Hunter, a firefighter and board treasurer, in the aftermath of the investigation without following company bylaws.


“His actions have been biased and unfair,” it concludes. ”He has undermined the fire chief, other members of the board/department, been threatening, been misleading and hindering operations of the fire department.”


Tarbert acknowledged he issued dismissal letters to both members without going through the entire board, after assuming the two were implicated in the spending irregularities.

“I didn’t go through the proper procedures with that,” he said.


Tarbert maintains the rest of the allegations brought against him were, however, fabricated as a pretext for his removal.


“If they had all those concerns against me, why wait till I brought charges against Baird before they brought this against me?” he asked.


Maritz, the company’s first chief in 1983, insisted the investigation was begun in good faith.

He, Tarbert and Petrunio said the company has lost approximately half of its membership during the past 12 months, and they fear now for its future.


“This fire department, if it exists more than a year from now, I’ll be awful surprised,” said Maritz, who was the company’s first chief when it formed in 1983.


Baird did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.


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