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Charges against ex-fire chief send shock waves through North York Borough Council

Tina Locurto
York Dispatch

Five days after the former chief of Liberty Fire Co. was charged with embezzling from the organization, North York Borough Council's vice president quit and its president faced accusations of a conflict of interest over his role in an audit of the company.

Council Vice President Bill Jackson resigned from his post Tuesday evening, following the news that former fire chief Stephen Miller was charged with the third-degree felonies of theft by unlawful taking, theft by failure to make required disposition of funds and receiving stolen property.

Jackson's resignation was unanimously approved by the borough council members, who did not comment on why Jackson quit. He was not present at Tuesday night's council meeting.

Jackson's cell phone number appeared to be disconnected Wednesday, and he could not be reached for comment.  

Issues relating to Liberty Fire Co. have been controversial at borough council meetings for months.

Council President Richard Shank, self-appointed to the role of liaison during North York's forensic audit of Liberty Fire, told a crowd of 21 that, since "multiple people" are being investigated in this case, it would not be a "conflict of interest" to remain involved in the audit.

 Miller, he said, is a friend.

Bill Jackson's chair sits vacant as the North York Borough Council meeting starts, Tuesday, October 13, 2020. Jackson resigned from the council, his position was filled by council member Jamie Moore.
John A. Pavoncello photo

"I'm not happy that he did what he did, but I'm a true friend," Shank said. "I'll be behind him."

York County detectives have been investigating allegations of theft against Miller for about 11 months while an audit of the fire company's finances was being conducted. Officials said the audit was initially commissioned in 2019 after questions arose about the company's finances.

During Tuesday's meeting, several residents peppered council members about the borough's handling of the issues at Liberty Fire.  

Resident Ashley Stine questioned why the council reappointed Miller in February while the audit was underway.

The borough council formerly had the power to appoint fire company officers, but in April it surrendered that responsibility to the fire company's board of trustees. 

"In my lifetime, in the state of this world, you're innocent until proven guilty," Shank responded. "And until I knew (Miller) was guilty, there was no reason not to hold him up. He served this borough well."

Detectives allege that Miller embezzled more than $16,000 from the company between 2015 and 2019.

More:North York's ex-fire chief charged with embezzling about $16K from Liberty Fire Co.

More:North York borough concealing Liberty Fire Co. audit, councilwoman says

More:With audit still secret, Liberty Fire chief quits post

Stine, the former head of fundraising for the fire company, also brought up questions about a fire company laptop, which she claimed had records that did not reach the hands of the auditor who was investigating Liberty Fire Co.

"You know what you did with that laptop, you know you're on camera with Mr. Jackson admitting about what you did with that laptop," Stine said. "You had the hard drive wiped."

Shank denied those allegations, adding that the laptop is in the hands of the York County District Attorney's Office. 

"You can accuse me of doing everything, young lady," Shank said. "I have no reason to lie about anything."

On Tuesday, council members unanimously voted to name Jamie Moore the council's new vice president, replacing Jackson. 

Moore threatened to quit the council in March after Shank refused to make the audit public. At the time, Shank said the audit was incomplete.

In March, The York Dispatch requested the audit under the state's Right-to-Know Law. The borough denied the paper's request because the records related to a "non-criminal investigation."

On Tuesday, borough officials again declined to release the audit, this time saying that it's in the hands of York County District Attorney Dave Sunday. 

Miller, 58, of the 2700 block of Clearview Road in Springettsbury Township, resigned as Liberty's chief in April, citing harassment from peers, friends and residents. His exit came after the dispute among borough council members over the public release of the fire company audit. 

York County detectives determined that between 2015 and 2019, Miller's personal checking account had been charged $9,060 in bank overdraft fees, according to documents, which state it appears Miller was having financial difficulties.

In an interview Sept. 16, Miller confessed to stealing from the fire company, claiming it was to support his daughter and four grandchildren, documents state.

Miller's bail was set at $15,000 unsecured, meaning he didn't have to post cash to remain free but could forfeit that amount if he misses court hearings.

— Reach Tina Locurto at tlocurto@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @tina_locurto.