CAL FIRE captain gets 1-year prison term for defrauding FEMA on grants
A spokesperson said CAL FIRE gave Samuel Thomas Lanier a conditional job offer but he had not started; Lanier said he needs income to repay the government
By Dale Kasler
The Sacramento Bee
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A CAL FIRE captain was sentenced Monday to a year and a day in prison after pleading guilty to defrauding FEMA out of grant money that was supposed to go for training firefighters.
Samuel Thomas Lanier, 43, of Dunsmuir, who was rehired by CAL FIRE in August despite his pending criminal case, was sentenced in U.S. District Court in Sacramento by Judge Kimberly Mueller. Mueller said Lanier took the money to prop up a failing business.
“I don’t believe it was motivated by greed in the classic sense,” she said.
Lanier worked at CAL FIRE from 1999 to 2014 before leaving the state agency to concentrate on a company he’d started that administered Federal Emergency Management Agency grants for firefighter organizations in Siskiyou and Shasta counties.
In 2019, he pleaded guilty to seven felony charges of submitting false invoices to the federal government. Prosecutors said he’d pocketed about $1.2 million of FEMA’s money.
Nevertheless, he was rehired by CAL FIRE in August. Jon Heggie, a battalion chief and CAL FIRE spokesman, said Lanier “was given a conditional job offer” as a fire captain but hadn’t yet started. CAL FIRE “will be rescinding this job offer immediately,” Heggie said by email.
Heggie said he doesn’t know whether CAL FIRE was aware of Lanier’s legal problems when it made the job offer.
His lawyer, assistant federal defender Noa Oren, cited his new post at CAL FIRE in asking Mueller to place Lanier on probation.
Lanier and his lawyer declined to comment as they left the courtroom; he is to report to prison in December.
In brief comments before sentencing, Lanier said he would lose his job at CAL FIRE if sent to prison. He said his business failure has left him deeply in debt and he needs his CAL FIRE salary in order to repay the government. “I am working to return to a better life,” he said.
Lanier was hired in August to be a dispatcher in the Bay area.
Lanier’s new role as a fire captain “puts his talents to their highest use,” Oren wrote in a court filing last month.
In court Monday, the defense lawyer said Lanier “was a completely hapless business person” who used the FEMA money to try to keep his companies going. “He wants to pay back what he owes.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Veronica Alegria acknowledged that Lanier didn’t appear to use the money to enrich himself. But she said the crime was so severe that he should have gotten a two-year prison term.
“This is not a case of the defendant mismanaging funds,” she said in court. “He (sent) these false reimbursement requests to FEMA.”
Lanier’s companies, FireWhat Inc. and Cedar Flats, administered FEMA grants that had been awarded to fire chiefs’ associations in Shasta and Siskiyou counties. His role was to periodically submit “drawdown requests” to FEMA to disburse the money.