The Bridgehampton Fire District has asked Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota to open a criminal investigation into the actions of the district’s longtime treasurer and secretary.
The district’s commissioners last week approved a resolution that strips Charles Butler of his already greatly reduced salary and health benefits and authorizes their attorney to work with the D.A.’s office to investigate the financial affairs of the district, and some of Mr. Butler’s actions as secretary and treasurer—an investigation that could reach back over three decades of Mr. Butler’s oversight of the district’s bookkeeping.
Through his attorney, Mr. Butler has denied any wrongdoing.
The fire district’s attorney and new financial manager, Brad Pinsky, said in an interview that he’d discovered several suspicious transactions during an examination of the district and fire department’s financial records from 2013. Among the questionable actions, according to Mr. Pinsky, were a number of vouchers filed by Mr. Butler and paid with department funds for materials and goods that do not appear to have been connected to district or Bridgehampton Fire Department business. The vouchers were mostly to a local hardware store and were for small amounts of money, $50 or less.
Mr. Pinsky said a handful of pre-signed, blank vouchers also were found in Mr. Butler’s desk at the district offices. There were also a number of transactions made using the district’s debit card that do not have accompanying receipts—an accounting misstep that the district’s independent auditors had noted in the past.
He also said that he discovered a letter to Mr. Butler’s homeowner’s insurance company on which Mr. Butler appears to have forged the signature of the Bridgehampton Fire Department’s chief, Gary Horsburg. The letter, Mr. Pinsky said, was a general declaration form confirming to the insurance company that Mr. Butler’s home had been destroyed by a fire in 2012.
Mr. Pinsky said that if the signature was indeed forged, he could not understand why Mr. Butler had not simply gotten the chief’s signature on the document, since there was nothing untoward about the information in the letter. Nonetheless, forging the signature of a public official could be a felony criminal offense.
Mr. Butler has not responded to several requests for comment, but his attorney, Thomas Horn, said this week that his client has done nothing illegal or improper, and he called the recent actions of the district commissioners and Mr. Pinsky “bizarre.” He said the district has never asked Mr. Butler about the suspect transactions or called on him to explain the questioned vouchers.
“Most importantly, Mr. Butler has done nothing wrong,” Mr. Horn said. “This is something they have not said to Mr. Butler or questioned him about, which you have to put under the heading of bizarre behavior. If you want to know something, you should ask the person involved.”
Mr. Horn said that he has enlisted the services of civil rights attorney Lawrence E. Kelly to look at the treatment of Mr. Butler by the district.
Mr. Pinsky said that he and the district have made several attempts to get Mr. Butler to return to the district’s offices in recent weeks to offer an explanation for the questioned transactions. “We have sent him two demands to return to work as treasurer. He has refused,” Mr. Pinsky, a Syracuse attorney who specializes in fire district oversight, said this week. “He sent an email to the commissioners stating he had nothing left to do—which is silly. The only thing he’s been restricted from doing at this point is signing checks and transferring funds.”
In November, the commissioners stripped Mr. Butler of his appointed title of secretary. He remains the district’s elected treasurer, with a year remaining on his most recent term. But in November, the commissioners slashed his salary for the position from $60,000 to $1,500. Last week, the commissioners stripped him of that compensation as well and removed him from the district’s health insurance rolls.
Members of the commissioners board declined to comment on the suspect transactions and their call for an investigation by the D.A.
The vote was 4-0, with Commissioner Bruce Dombkowski abstaining from the vote in his first meeting since unseating the district’s chairman, Steve Halsey, in last month’s district elections—a vote that seems to have turned largely on the district’s disciplining of the well-liked Mr. Butler.
Mr. Pinsky said that the commissioners had gone to great lengths not to let details of their suspicions about Mr. Butler come out before the election, even if it could have deflected some of the criticism of Mr. Halsey prior to the vote.
“Past Commissioner Steve Halsey took the high ground on this, and he took his lumps,” he said. “We could have come out with this information much sooner, but he didn’t want to influence the election, even though it was clearly influenced already by what some of the public perceived as being the unfair treatment of the treasurer by the commissioners. Some obviously took that out on Steve Halsey.”