Violating the public’s trust
It is beyond discouraging to have to write another column about a once-trusted public servant money handler who is being accused of spending vast sums illegally on personal expenses.
But this is precisely what must be done after learning from police and the state’s chief watchdog office that nearly $315,000 is missing from the Lehigh Township Volunteer Fireman’s Relief Association in Northampton County, and Auditor General Eugene DePasquale and police are pointing the finger at the association’s former treasurer, Corey Cole Jr., 41, of Lehigh Township.
Cole surrendered to township police on April 12 and was arraigned before District Justice Robert Hawke in Walnutport, who set bail at $100,000. Unable to post bail, Cole was led away in handcuffs to the Northampton County Prison in Easton.
A few days later, bail was reduced to $50,000, which Cole posted, so he is free on bond until his next court appearance.
Cole was charged with nearly 380 offenses over a seven-year period starting in 2011 involving theft, forgery and tampering with evidence.
DePasquale commended the association’s leadership for blowing the whistle on these irregularities last summer.
“My office worked with local law enforcement to help the investigation. Last week my team provided the local police department with a report outlining 377 instances of alleged theft amounting to nearly $315,000.”
DePasquale also took what he described as the “unprecedented step” of withdrawing past audits and ordering new reviews, the results of which will be released “in the near future.”
Although the association is not part of the fire company itself, it serves as a valuable support organization.
The Auditor General’s office audits all volunteer firefighters’ relief associations, which receive state aid from a 2% state tax on fire insurance premiums taken out by Pennsylvania residents from out-of-state insurance and casualty companies.
“The (Lehigh Township) association’s current leadership has been very cooperative in our efforts to account for the tax dollars it has received,” DePasquale added.
What many township residents and I are trying to figure out is if this has been going on for seven years, and if there have been annual audits, why has it taken so long for the missing funds to be detected? After all, $315,000 isn’t exactly pocket change.
Cole is a former 18-year member of the Allentown Police Department. He resigned last August when details of the investigation came to light.
According to the Auditor General’s office, Cole wrote checks of more than $211,000 to himself, expended more than $73,000 in debit card purchases and created fictitious vendor invoices totaling nearly $20,000. He is also accused of signing checks for nearly $9,600 to pay vendors for non relief association related purchases.
According to authorities, the misappropriated funds were used for, among other things, entertainment, online shopping and restaurants.
Lehigh Township Police Chief Scott Fogel said at the arraignment Friday that Cole had betrayed the public trust and used his position as a law enforcement officer to steal the money.
After the arraignment, Cole’s attorney, Greg Spang of Allentown, said his client is remorseful for his actions. He also said the thefts snowballed. If Cole is convicted, he could lose his police pension since most of the alleged crimes he is accused of are felonies.
In 2018, 2,518 municipalities received $55.1 million in state aid for distribution to local volunteer firefighters’ relief associations to provide training, purchase equipment and insurance, and pay for death benefits for volunteer firefighters, DePasquale said. Of that amount, about $60,000 went to Lehigh Township.
By Bruce Frassinelli | firstname.lastname@example.org