I-Team: Fire District Used Public Equipment for Private Landscaping

The spending practices of the Uniondale Fire District are already under probe

A Long Island fire district already under investigation for its spending practices has used taxpayer-funded equipment to work on private homes, photos obtained by the I-Team show.

The pictures show Uniondale Fire District members mowing a lawn in front of a private residence with taxpayer-owned equipment. On the street in front of the home, an equipment trailer marked “Uniondale Fire District” can be seen parked while the landscaping is being done. It was not immediately clear when the work took place.

When asked about the photo at a public meeting, Peter Fishbein, an attorney for the fire district, said he could not comment.

“That is one of the matters that is under investigation by the district attorney’s office here in Nassau County,” Fishbein said.

Several members of the fire district’s Board of Commissioners acknowledged other kinds of misappropriation are under investigation too -- not only by criminal authorities, but also by the New York State Comptroller’s Office.  The Nassau County District Attorney’s Office and the New York State Comptroller’s Office both declined comment.

Last month, individual members of the Uniondale Fire District Board of Commissioners turned in their district credit cards and voted to strip Commissioner Noel Thomas, a former chief of the department, of his spending authority.

According to documents obtained by the I-Team through a Freedom of Information request, Thomas charged at least six trips to fire conventions in just twelve months during 2011 and 2012. Thousands of dollars in hotel and travel expenses were spent on conferences in Atlanta, Orlando, Las Vegas, Baltimore, Las Vegas again, and upstate New York.

Records also show Thomas used his district credit card for a cash advance at a Las Vegas casino, although he later paid the money back. Thomas insisted the board’s decision to revoke his spending authority was politically motivated. 

“Nothing was stolen," Thomas said. "Nothing was put in anybody’s pocket.” 

Volunteer firefighters and commissioners are unpaid, and perks like travel have long been used to reward their service. 

Thomas suggested his spending habits were not out of line with other fire district leaders who tacitly endorse a liberal policy for credit card use.

“In my opinion, I feel that I’m accused and being sentenced on things that didn’t really happen," Noel said at a public meeting.  "I mean yes there was excessive spending but that’s just how we ran the district.” 

Thomas declined to comment when asked about specific expenditures in his credit card history.
When firefighters and fire district personnel attend out-of-state conventions, New York law requires districts to send proof of actual attendance at educational seminars. Despite having booked six trips to fire conventions, the I-Team has learned the New York Office of Fire Prevention and Control has no record of Noel Thomas attending any education sessions at those conventions.

District Chairwoman Samantha Dias said she was unaware of the requirement to send convention attendance records to Albany.

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