'They were lied to': New allegations in Pa. fire chief embezzlement case
Liberty Fire Co. Chief Steven Miller faces felony charges related to embezzlement, yet new questions, concerns emerge about FD finances
The York Dispatch, Pa.
NORTH YORK, Pa. — Ashley Stine remembered times spent at Hollywood Casino in Perryville, Maryland, with her now late husband, Chris Wilhelm, and former Liberty Fire Co. Chief Steven Miller.
She didn't think much of it when Miller dropped hundreds of dollars in cash on the penny slots.
"Just the amount of cash that man pulled out of his wallet, it started to not add up after a few times," said Stine, who was a fundraising chair for the fire company and whose husband was a volunteer firefighter.
Miller now faces multiple felony charges related to allegations he embezzled more than $16,000 from Liberty Fire Co. between 2015 and 2019. But Stine and others familiar with events going back as early as the 1990s are raising new concerns about Miller and how his case was handled by local officials.
A forensic audit, commissioned by the North York Borough Council and obtained by The York Dispatch after a lengthy public records battle, revealed a "high likelihood" that Miller misappropriated fire company assets, findings that ultimately led to the felony charges.
Questions remain, however.
Stine alleges that there are additional receipts that do not appear in the recently released audit.
North York Borough Council President Rick Shank, the self-appointed liaison for the audit, explained that he served as a go-between, gathering documents from witnesses and passing them along to the auditor.
"Anything that was given to me was given to the auditors through the liaison of the borough," Shank said.
Furthermore, North York Councilperson Vivian Amspacher said she raised questions about the fire department's finances as early as 2014, when she served as council president. According to her, the borough solicitor at the time drafted a letter to Liberty Fire Co. seeking bank account statements.
Amspacher said the letter seeking statements was stopped under mysterious circumstances. Shank, who served as council vice president in 2014, denied any knowledge of it.
"I find it very discouraging now that it could have been stopped in 2014," Amspacher said, "but somebody went behind my back and stopped it."
'I'm never leaving'
Discussions surrounding Liberty Fire Co. and Miller's involvement with the alleged embezzlement have been contentious at North York borough meetings for years — most recently at the council's meeting on Tuesday night.
Shank shook his head in disapproval at Amspacher's assertion that a letter was drafted in 2014.
"I may have to testify and I don't want to let all of my birds out," he said when asked to respond to his colleague's allegations. "I knew a lot of things, but I will not say another comment about anything. (Amspacher) will tell you the whole story the way she wants you to hear it."
Amspacher stood by her statements, saying at the meeting she would testify in court if she had to.
While Shank and Amspacher fired comments back and forth, Councilperson Gary Braham asked: "Isn't this a borough meeting?"
Meanwhile, resident and former councilperson Sandra Hinkle publicly called for Shank to resign.
"Your lack of common sense, decency and blatant disregard for the taxpayers of this community is unconscionable," Hinkle said. "Mr. Shank, for the betterment of this community and its residents, you must make a conscious decision and step down as president and resign."
Later during the meeting, Shank addressed Hinkle's request by saying she's only one of 1,800 residents.
"I want nothing but the best for this borough," he said, "so I'm never leaving."
Stine, who was interviewed for the 2019 audit, was surprised to learn that certain information — in her opinion — was missing from the final report.
Documents that should have been handed over to the auditor were absent, she said. These included receipts turned over for reimbursement checks to former firefighter Paul Hoover and his wife, Dolly.
A total of 19 checks ranging from $12.71 to $342.12 were made out to Paul Hoover, with a memo indicating that the money was for reimbursement of various supplies purchased for Liberty Fire Co., according to the audit.
"Through discussions with borough representatives, it was common that purchases were made by Paul Hoover on behalf of the Fire Company," the audit reads. "However, fire company personnel never reviewed actual receipts supporting the reimbursements in detail prior to reimbursement."
Paul Hoover told The York Dispatch that he always turned in receipts to Miller for items he purchased. That included food purchases for barbecues and toys for bingo prizes.
Stine attested to Paul Hoover's claim, as she would often accompany him on shopping trips. She alleged, however, that the audit was "controlled" because of the missing receipts.
"I feel like the community as a whole was misled," she said. "I feel like they were lied to."
Shank said any documents to be used in the audit came from the fire company board and trustees.
Last October, Shank said that although he considers Miller a friend, his role as a liaison would not be a "conflict of interest" due to multiple people being involved in the audit.
Amspacher, who raised concerns about Shank's involvement as liaison, said she's heard similar claims about missing records.
"If you're not given the right paperwork, you can only do what you can do," she said.
Questions in 2014
Other names that appeared in the audit included the now-deceased Byron Good, who accepted six checks — two of which were loans — and Dolly Hoover, who accepted one check with no memo.
Amspacher said Good approached her in 2014 and said there should be an investigation into the fire company — and that the borough solicitor at the time prepared a letter asking for the company's bank statements.
The probe apparently didn't go very far.
"I will never forget it, I called (the solicitor) and I said, 'How are you making out with the (investigation) of the fire company?'" Amspacher recalled. "It was stone cold silence. He was very dry and short, and he said to me, 'I was told to let it go.'"
Amspacher could not identify who on the borough council reached out to the solicitor to end her inquiry. On Tuesday, The York Dispatch once again asked what happened.
"I hear this story all the time," Shank said. "I don't know where they're getting it."
He referred all other questions back to Amspacher.
Hinkle, who was on the council in 2014 and was also a member of the fire company, said a letter about the investigation — also described by Amspacher — was sent to Miller.
"I'm aware of the letter and I'm aware that someone put the quelch to it," Hinkle said.
No one was able to provide The York Dispatch with a copy of the letter. Amspacher, who was council president at that time, said that although she had requested and reviewed the letter, she didn't keep a copy of it for her records.
According to the recent audit, Miller reportedly received a check from himself. The report stated it was "unclear why Mr. Miller would make the check out to himself in order to return rental money."
Several anonymous individuals also gave witness statements.
One witness, who paid $500 to rent the social hall, was handed back $150 from Miller, who allegedly said the money "was for taking care of the hall rental and clean up."
Another witness told the auditor they handed Miller $250 in cash for a social hall rental and noted that Miller put the money in his fire duty vehicle. The 2019 social hall rental calendar shows a record of the $250 payment, but there was no corresponding deposit on the 2019 bank statement.
Miller was responsible for the social hall rental calendar at the time, according to the audit.
At an October council meeting where allegations were aired and one council member resigned, Stine questioned why the council reappointed Miller as fire chief last year while the audit was underway. The borough council had the power to appoint fire company officers but surrendered that power to the fire company's board of trustees in April.
"In my lifetime, in the state of this world, you're innocent until proven guilty," Shank said at that October meeting. "And until I knew (Miller) was guilty, there was no reason not to hold him up. He served this borough well."
Shank, who for years served as fire chief in neighboring Manchester Township, said he considers Miller a friend.
"I'm not happy with what he did, but I'm a true friend," he said last year, amid questions about Shank's involvement in the audit. "I'll be behind him."
In a September 2020 interview with detectives, Miller confessed to stealing from the fire company, saying it was to support his daughter and four grandchildren, charging documents state.
According to court records, Miller had an arraignment scheduled for Jan. 22, but that hearing was waived. There haven't been any hearings in the case since, and no future court dates are scheduled.
Miller remains free on $15,000 bail.
"At the end of the day, I feel bad for the residents because this hurts the taxpayers — this hurts the residents," Amspacher said. "And at the end, it was the downfall of our fire company."
The 122-year-old Liberty Fire Co. disbanded in January, three months after Miller was charged.
Miller had also been accused of embezzlement while serving as Liberty Fire Co. chief in the 1990s.
According to a May 4, 1995, article published in The York Dispatch, Miller admitted to stealing $950 from a bank account for his company's junior firefighters program between November 1991 and June 1992. He later repaid the money and was not criminally charged for the incident.
Miller was also serving as a borough council member at that time, and he refused to resign after admitting to the theft despite a near-unanimous vote from the board asking him to step down.
His brother, Mike, defeated him in the fire company's leadership vote that year.
Hinkle said Steven Miller was even expelled from the fire company after the incident, but he returned sometime before 2004.
"The people (in the fire company) had changed a great deal, so not a lot of people were aware of that issue," she said. "Those that were, I guess, thought it was not a big deal."
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