Some New York residents are questioning the choice of a convicted armed robber to lead a local volunteer department on Long Island, while the man who served time for the felony says the hard road back has helped him better serve his community, NBC 4 New York's I-Team has learned.
Elmont Fire Department Chief Robert Schriefer, 40, served three years in jail for a 1998 armed robbery in North Long Beach. The felony complaint says Schriefer, then 23 years old, helped two other men steal cash from patrons of a bar while they were "armed with a handgun."
Schriefer, a long-time volunteer firefighter whose family has served Elmont for generations, described his crime in an email to the I-Team as "a significant mistake -- one that I regret deeply."
He said volunteer firefighting has been a kind of restitution, in his eyes, to those he hurt and the larger community.
“For me, that incident was a wake-up call and I have since committed myself to living a positive and productive life, including dedicating hundreds of hours each year to responding to aid my neighbors at fires and emergencies," Schriefer said.
Bylaws for the Elmont district explicitly state that convicted felons are not eligible to become active members of its volunteer fire department.
"Any person .. who is a convicted felon, or who has been convicted of such lesser crimes which shall, in the opinion of the Board of Fire Commissioners, demonstrate lack of good moral character required of a Volunteer Firefighter, shall not be eligible to become an active member in the Elmont Fire Department,” the bylaws state.
Joseph Frank, an attorney for the Elmont Fire Department, told the I-Team bylaws that provide a blanket ban on felon applications are not enforceable under state law unless the crime was arson.
“Article 23-A of the Correction Law require that fire districts and other employers apply a prescribed process to review the prior criminal convictions of applicants and are not permitted to automatically exclude an applicant for membership based upon a criminal conviction that is not an arson conviction," Frank wrote in an email to the I-Team.
A former Elmont firefighter, Beatrice Lozada, who sued the department for sexual harassment told the I-Team she recalls past applicants being turned down because of their criminal records. In her former position of company secretary, Lozada said she knew of at least two men denied membership in the volunteer department because of their rap sheets.
The Elmont Fire District declined to specifically discuss Lozada's allegations that applicants in the past have been turned away based on previous crimes. The department said criminal records are only one factor taken into consideration in the application process.
“We attempt to do a full assessment of the applicant and give each applicant a fair chance to serve their community,” said Elmont Fire Commissioner Joseph Balletta.
Some local residents told the I-Team the prior armed robbery conviction should bar Schriefer from serving as fire chief, in line with the intent of the bylaws of the department. Others said Schriefer served his time and deserved a second chance, but the magnitude of the felony for which he was convicted was too great to give him a position of such authority.
The controversy over Schriefer's appointment follows a series of issues connected to the Elmont Fire Department.
In 2011, several department logos portraying what appeared to be Confederate flags prompted accusations of racism. Later that year, the New York Comptroller's office published an audit describing inappropriate credit card use in the fire district. An I-Team investigation also found the Elmont Fire Department spent thousands of tax dollars on specialized race cars for drill team competitors.