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Fire department under Federal investigation

By Chad Nesbitt

Skyland – In an exclusive, the Tribune/Leader has learned that the Skyland Fire Department is under federal investigation and that three members of the department have been fired.

In a statement by Skyland Board President Scott Hart obtained by the Tribune/Leader, Hart said, “On behalf of the board of the Skyland fire department we wish to share some information with you. On March 13th, 2019, the Skyland Fire Department received several Federal subpoenas from the Asheville division of the US attorney’s office for the Western District of North Carolina requesting documents and information involving matters occurring over the last several years. In addition, we received a federal spoliation letter that directs everyone in the department to not alter, destroy or harm in any way, any information, documents or items that may be a part of the federal government’s investigation.

“Our department is going to work diligently with the US attorney’s office and the law enforcement agencies involved and will cooperate, work hard to respond to this and any other requests and be transparent in every communication, action and events surrounding the investigation. We asked everyone to be patient and courteous to our guests that may visit our properties in the near future as it relates to this investigation and to assist them in every way possible.

“We cannot give exact details as to the content of the subpoenas or the spoliation letter. Our employees are a hard-working professional group of men and women that come to work every day to help keep this community safe. We will continue to work hard while this investigation is being completed.

“As uncomfortable and difficult as this may be, we are asking all members of the department to please make a conscious effort not to fuel any misinformation or rumors and conduct ourselves with the highest degree of professionalism.

“We thank all the members of the department for all their hard work and dedication to the Skyland Fire Department.”

Just before last year’s revelation about Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene and the scandal involving finances, the Tribune/Leader broke the story that the Skyland Fire Department did not have enough funds to make payroll even after receiving $6 million a year and tax money.

Wanda Greene gave a total of $1 million to the Skyland Fire Department without the Buncombe County Commissioner’s knowledge according to Brownie Newman, chairman of the Buncombe County Commissioners.

A Skyland Fire Department employee, Mark Dillingham, also wrote a check which he said was a loan from the Riceville Fire Department for $150,000 to the Skyland Fire Department. At the time, Dillingham was president of the Riceville Fire Department Board. Board members of the Riceville Fire Department said they had no knowledge of the check being written. The money was eventually repaid to the Riceville Fire Department.

Former Skyland Fire Department chief Dennis Pressley told the Tribune/Leader he “needed the money to make payroll.” Other employees of the Skyland Fire Department told the Tribune/Leader that the department’s credit cards were maxed out and credit was cut off at a local auto parts store.

Since the first report from the Tribune/Leader, the Skyland Fire Department has a new board. The board hired former Buncombe County district attorney Ron Moore and well-known attorney David Wijwickarama and while the statement was not signed at the bottom of the letter, Moore’s and Wijwickarama’s names accompanied Hart’s (see statement below). Board members say the two attorneys have audited the past financial dealings of the Skyland Fire Department and in the wake of their findings a federal investigation has commenced.

Fire department bookkeepers Lisa and Katie Pressley, wife and daughter of longtime former Skyland Fire Chief Dennis Pressley, are no longer with the department. Katie also kept the books for other Buncombe County Fire Departments. Both resigned within the last three months. This is an ongoing story.

In addition, sources who wish to remain anonymous told the Tribune/Leader that three employees of the Skyland Fire Department have been fired. The newspaper contacted board president Scott Hart and asked if he could confirm if Mark Dillingham, Matt Gibson, and Chad Presley are current employees of the Skyland Fire Department. Hart said, “Those three…are no longer employed here.”

Under former Skyland Fire Chief Dennis Pressley’s administration, Mark Dillingham wrote a check from the Riceville Fire Department to the Skyland fire department for $150,000. At the time, Dillingham was the Riceville Fire Department’s board president. After the Tribune/Leader broke that story, other members of the Riceville board publicly announced that they had no knowledge that Dillingham wrote the check to the Skyland Fire Department. Several board members at the Skyland Fire Department were also not aware of the “loan.” Dillingham was a division fire chief at Skyland.

The newspaper tried to confirm that Dillingham, who stepped down to vice chairman of the board after the revelation, was still on the Riceville Board. The Tribune/Leader spoke with Riceville Fire Chief John Coffey and asked if Mark Dillingham was still a board member in the wake of the federal investigation. Coffey said, “This all happened before I got here and I’m going to refer you to our department attorney for any questions.” At the time of this story Board Attorney Phil Fisher had not returned our call.

Matt Gibson was a custodian at the Skyland Fire Department. Skyland board members revealed that Matt Gibson gave $125,000 to the Skyland Fire Department without the board members’ knowledge. Chad Pressley was an EMT and Firefighter at Skyland. He is the son of former Skyland Chief Dennis Pressley.

MORE CONTROVERSY?

Last year the Riceville Fire Department held several public meetings regarding the actions of then-board president Mark Dillingham. Buncombe County EMS director Jerry VeHaun and commissioner Mike Fryar sat in attendance as Buncombe County Attorney Michael Frue and Buncombe County Finance Director Tim Flora answered questions of the public. Tim Flora explained to the crowd that the $150,000 had been repaid back to the Riceville Fire Department. Flora said, “This looks like a loan.” The crowd erupted in anger, and several questioned how a board member could give a loan without the other board members knowing about it.

Buncombe County attorney Michael Frue recommended an auditing firm help with the policies and by-laws of the Riceville Fire Department.

It is unclear how the new federal investigation of the Skyland Fire Department might influence the finances or lead to inquiries by federal investigators at the Riceville Fire Department. More to come on this story as the Tribune/Leader obtains more details.

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Clint Parker

Publisher & Editor Weaverville Tribune

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