Office of Open Records orders North York to turn over Liberty Fire Co. audit

Tina Locurto
York Dispatch
Liberty Fire Company Wednesday, March 11, 2020. Bill Kalina photo

The state Office of Open Records this week ordered North York officials to provide The York Dispatch with an audit of the now-disbanded Liberty Fire Co.

The borough has 30 days from Thursday to turn over the audit — which borough officials commissioned at the same time York County detectives were investigating former Fire Chief Stephen Miller, who was later charged with embezzlement.

The York Dispatch filed several Right-to-Know requests seeking the audit from North York borough in March 2020 and in January 2021. The borough denied the requests, claiming the audit was related to criminal and noncriminal investigations and therefore exempt from Pennsylvania's Right-to-Know Law.

The newspaper filed an appeal in January with the state Office of Open Records, which ruled Thursday the borough did not establish that it conducted a criminal investigation and that it may not withhold an audit report under the Right-To-Know Law.

"The criminal investigative exemption exempts records of the criminal investigations undertaken by the Borough, but it does not exempt documents of the Borough just because they may be the subject of criminal investigations by other agencies," appeals officer Jill S. Wolfe wrote in her determination.

As for the borough's claim that records “relating to a noncriminal investigation” are exempt from disclosure, Wolfe notes the Right-to-Know Law "specifically exempts the work papers underlying an audit without exempting the actual audit."

North York officials may appeal the final determination to the York County Court of Common Pleas within 30 days.

Steven D. Miller, the former chief of North York's Liberty Fire Co., is accused of embezzling about $16,000 from the fire company.

If the borough appeals, the court will then schedule a time for both parties to present their arguments, according to Liz Wagenseller, the executive director of the state Office of Open Records.

"The court will then (make) a decision and decide whether it agrees with the OOR’s final determination and uphold the OOR final determination, or if it disagrees and reverse the OOR," she said via email.

Pennsylvania's Right-to-Know Law allows requesters to seek attorneys fees "if a court holds that records were denied based on an unreasonable interpretation of law, or in bad faith."

North York borough solicitor Walt Tilley declined to comment, only saying that he has "not yet reviewed the OOR decision with the Borough Council."

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

In October, Miller, 58, of the 2700 block of Clearview Road in Springettsbury Township, 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.

He is accused of embezzling more than $16,000 from Liberty Fire Co. between 2015 and 2019.

He resigned as Liberty's chief in April 2020. His exit came after a dispute among borough council members over the public release of the fire company audit.

In January, Liberty Fire Co. disbanded, citing ongoing internal issues with members.

In late 2019, 10 members resigned from Liberty Fire Co. The exodus was due to "conflict within members," according to then-Chief Miller in March 2020.

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 conducted. Officials said the audit was initially commissioned in 2019 after questions arose about the company's finances.

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.

Liberty Fire Company Wednesday, March 11, 2020. Bill Kalina photo