The former volunteer fire chief for the Turtle Creek Fire Department, along with a former bookkeeper, were sentenced in Saline County Circuit Court on Thursday after both admitted to theft from the department.
Former Chief Jimmy Cooper admitted to stealing money for “many years,” according to his arrest warrant. Cooper was arrested in March after admitting to an Arkansas State Police special agent “to using funds from the Turtle Creek Fire Department for personal reasons.”
“Jimmy Cooper pleaded guilty to theft of property in the amount of $60,000,” said Chief Deputy Prosecutor Rebecca Bush. “He agreed that he took money from the Turtle Creek Fire Department fund and used that for his personal benefit.”
According to Bush, he used the money to complete repairs on his ATV and for other personal property and purposes.
Cooper reportedly initially admitted to his wrongdoing Aug. 16, 2018, after police had been investigating the incident since June 29, 2018.
At the beginning of 2019, ASP received an investigative report from an Arkansas Legislative auditor revealing that the department had $40,175 in undocumented payments to Cooper.
"He wrote himself checks out of that account for many years, but denied anyone else was involved. Cooper stated that he would get gasoline in his personal truck that was equipped with lights for fire calls after he would do work for the fire department, like driving around the district to update new houses or buildings for tax records," according to the warrant.
"There were $32,578 in undocumented payments to vendors. Since invoices were not provided, the propriety of these disbursements could not be determined. It was also discovered that former Fire Chief Jimmy Cooper had cash withdrawals from the bank," according to the warrant.
The auditor allegedly determined that there were $4,050 in undocumented payments to other individuals and Cooper also endorsed undocumented checks issued payable to "cash," according to the warrant.
During the course of the investigation, detectives examined financial statements from June 2012 through April 2018, as well as speaking with employees at Greeson Inc. and receipts from JJ's Truck Stop.
"From the records supplied to me, it was discovered that Jimmy Cooper wrote personal checks in the amount of $59,350 that were written to himself or 'cash' and he admitted to paying for mechanical repair work in the amount of $721.86 for his personal UTV to Greeson Inc. Based on the auditor's finding, and Cooper's own admission, it was determined that at least $60,071.86 was misappropriated by former fire Chief Jimmy Cooper," the ASP special agent noted in the warrant.
Cooper will be required to repay $60,000 in restitution to the fire department.
Former bookkeeper Samantha Blair also pleaded guilty to four counts of forgery.
“She was charged with 131 counts of forgery,” Bush said. “What she had done was that she substituted the names of vendors on checks and put her own name into it.”
Blair will be required to repay $263,541 in restitution to the fire department.
An Arkansas State Police special agent noted in her arrest warrant that the investigation began Jan. 24, 2019, after a legislative auditor provided the audit summary.
During the audit review, staff allegedly found "improper disbursements totaling $327,531; altered financial records, including bank statements; and numerous internal control deficiencies. Of the $207,106 undocumented amount paid to the former bookkeeper, Samantha Blair, the payee on 131 canceled checks, totaling $69,797, had been altered to reflect a vendor's name rather than that of her own," according to arrest warrant.
Checks the auditors received were written to CASCO, a fire department supply company, but the original checks obtained by a board member were written to Blair and signed by her.
"It was discovered during the audit that she altered public records 131 times in the amount of $69,797. She would also pay herself for entering fire run records in the amount of $13 per hour and sometimes up to 50 hours a week, which was included in the improper disbursements of $207,106," according to the warrant.
During the audit, it was also revealed that the department's financial records were inadequate.
"Invoices were not always retained to support disbursements. The financial journal/ledger did not contain all activity and was not consistently maintained. It was also discovered that the Turtle Creek Fire Association did not receive financial audits required by Saline County Ordinance No. 2000-35," according to the warrant.
The auditor told police that Blair would not corporate during the audit process. The auditor had requested bank records for the department July 17, 2018, but Blair did not provide records until approximately Oct. 1, 2018.
"She would consistently make excuses that the records were in storage at the fire department and she needed help getting them out. However, when I would call her, she would never answer or return my call after a voicemail, text or email was left," according to the warrant.
Both Cooper and Blair were sentenced by Judge Gary Arnold to pay their respective restitutions, along with each serving 10 years probation. They must also serve 120 days in jail and pay all court costs and fees.