Former fire chief accused of embezzling from department’s raffle
BENNINGTON — The former chief of the Bennington Rural Fire Department was arraigned on a felony charge of embezzlement on Monday after police said he had been involved in a department raffle for which many winning players and the department had not received money.
Joseph T. Hayes, 44, pleaded innocent through his attorney, William Wright, in Bennington criminal court. He was released without bail but ordered not to handle any money for the Bennington Rural Fire Department.
After the arraignment, Wright said he was confident his client would be cleared of any illegal activity.
“It’s very unfortunate that there’s this amount of dissension within the (Bennington) Rural Fire Department. This is nothing more than fire department politics. When this case is over, everyone is going to agree with me,” he said.
The arraignment comes about a week after the Bennington Rural Fire Department suspended 15 members who were allegedly involved in setting a fire, without the proper permits, at a mud-riding event in April.
Hayes was charged with embezzling from the fire department in 2007 but the case went though the court diversion program so he doesn’t have a criminal conviction for the charge.
In an affidavit, Officer John Behan said he spoke with two members of the Bennington Rural Fire Department, Shawn Gardner and John Scutt, in January. Gardner was treasurer of the department at the time but he defeated Hayes in late January to become chief at the fire district’s annual meeting. At the same meeting, Scutt was elected first assistant chief.
The firefighters explained that there was a raffle to raise money for the department. Tickets cost $10 and there were to be 72 winners drawn. Those winners were to receive a cash prize, with the lowest amount of $5 and the highest amount of $75.
However, Behan said during the course of his investigation, he learned there were at least 10 people who had bought tickets and whose tickets were drawn but who never received money.
Scutt told Behan that the department had only managed to sell 137 tickets but needed to sell 200 tickets just to break even. The drawing went ahead on Dec. 16 but Scutt said on that day, Hayes entered tickets into the container from which winners were to be drawn.
According to Scutt, Hayes told him that if those tickets were drawn, the prize would go to the fire department. Scutt said Hayes told him the fire department should be eligible because they paid for the tickets but Scutt said he argued that the department had paid for the tickets to be printed but not to be entered into the drawing.
According to Scutt, the drawing took place on Dec. 16 and while those who won and were present at the time received their winnings, others did not. Behan said Scutt and Gardner gave him a list which indicated that only those with a connection to the fire department were given their winnings. Behan said he interviewed Hayes on Feb. 20. In the affidavit, Behan, who said the interview was recorded, said Hayes admitted to adding tickets to the raffle for the fire department although the department had not paid $10 for the tickets.
“Hayes advised that he was only trying to make the ticket sales equal to $2,000 by putting the tickets in the raffle. Hayes advised that he knew there was not enough tickets sold and that he was only trying to make the tickets even to cover the winnings,” Behan said.
Behan said Hayes told him it was Gardner’s responsibility to pay the winners.
According to the affidavit, there is $625 from the raffle money for which Hayes couldn’t account and the fire department did not receive any of its “winnings” of $325.
Hayes was charged with embezzling from the fire department in 2007 when police said they believed he charged a $125 septic tank cover to the department but kept it for himself. In January, Hayes pleaded guilty in Bennington criminal court to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct after being accused of throwing a flashlight at a truck driving by a fire scene in June 2012. Hayes received a deferred sentence in that case.
Bennington has two volunteer fire departments. The Bennington Fire Department is run by the town while the Bennington Rural Fire Department is located within its own taxing district and run by a prudential committee elected by members of that district. Hayes is a member of that committee.
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