Ex-fire chief ordered to pay $16,350 after guilty plea in embezzlement case

Aimee Ambrose
York Dispatch

A former fire chief in North York pleaded guilty to one theft charge and avoided a trial on accusations he embezzled thousands of dollars from his fire company.

Steven D. Miller, 60, admitted to the misdemeanor count of theft by unlawful taking of movable property Thursday.

Three felony theft charges — alleging unlawful taking of property, failing to make required disposition of funds and receiving stolen property — were dismissed as part of the plea, court documents show.

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

York County Court of Common Pleas Judge Harry Ness sentenced Miller to five years of non-reporting probation and imposed restitution, the documents show. The restitution amount was $16,350 to be paid to North York Borough, York County Clerk Dan Byrnes said.

Miller's attorney, Jeremy Williams, did not return a message seeking comment on the case

Messages seeking comment from Seth Hightman, president of the North York Borough council, also weren't returned.

>> Please consider subscribing to support local journalism. 

Miller was accused of embezzling more than $16,000 from Liberty Fire Co. over several years while he was the department’s chief.

Following a nearly year-long investigation, York County detectives alleged that between 2015 and 2019, Miller's personal checking account was charged $9,060 in bank overdraft fees while he had apparent financial difficulties, according to charging documents.

Miller allegedly confessed to stealing from the fire company during a police interview in September 2020, claiming he was supporting his daughter and four grandchildren, documents state.

A fire company official also advised investigators that Miller had allegedly stolen money from the department's junior firefighters account in 1991 and 1992, but he wasn't prosecuted for it, the documents said.

MORE:Investors to Think Loud partners: Show us the books

MORE:York County in settlement talks over lawsuit filed on behalf of Spanish-speaking voters

MORE:Man dies in crash on Bull Road

The North York Borough Council commissioned a forensic financial audit in 2019, and the report concluded a "high likelihood" that Miller misappropriated assets from 2012 through 2018.

Consulting firm RKL LLP, which completed the audit, pointed to close to $15,500 in "suspicious" withdrawals from the fire company's general account, with about $5,600 more in questionable withdrawals from the fire company's account for its social hall.

But the audit remained concealed for months, which led to some controversy.

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

The York Dispatch received a copy of the report in September 2021 following a months-long fight over access to it, which included filing several Right-to-Know requests in March 2020 and January 2021.

The requests were denied with claims the audit was related to investigations, making it exempt from Pennsylvania's Right-to-Know law.

The Dispatch appealed through the state's Office of Open Records. The office found the borough had not established that it conducted a criminal investigation and that it could not withhold an audit report.

The borough then appealed that decision through the York County Court of Common Pleas. A denied the appeal and ordered the audit's release.

While the process to seek access to the audit was underway, Miller resigned as fire chief in April 2020. North York officials alleged harassment from peers, friends and residents caused him to step down.

He was then charged in the criminal case about five months later.

And as 2021 dawned, Liberty Fire Co. folded and disbanded around that February.

The department, which had received $20,000 annually from the borough, already lost about 10 members when they resigned in September 2019, prior to Miller's departure and the criminal case, due to a stated conflict.

The borough council pivoted and signed a three-year, $70,000 contract with the York City Department of Fire and Rescue Services in January 2021 to take over Liberty Fire Co.'s coverage area. The $70,000 was for the first year, followed by 2% annual increases.

The fire company audit and subsequent criminal case led to shakeups within the borough council.

Jamie Moore threatened to resign from the council during a meeting in March 2020 where she accused other members of quashing the audit's release. She didn't resign then.

The council's vice president Bill Jackson then resigned days after Miller was charged. Moore was elected to fill his position on the board.

She eventually did resign a few months later, saying she was moving out of the borough.

North York Borough Council meeting, Tuesday, October 13, 2020.
John A. Pavoncello photo

Then in late 2021, another North York official faced criminal charges.

Keith Ramsay, while serving as the borough's elected tax collector, was accused in one case of sexting a council person on Election Day that November. In the second case, police alleged he fired a gun during a dispute outside his home in 2020, then covered it up by replacing shell casings with used sparklers in his yard.

Ramsay, who stepped down as tax collector after he was charged, pleaded guilty in November 2022 to three misdemeanors across both cases and was sentenced to three years of probation.

As both Ramsay and Miller faced criminal cases, the borough council's president, Rick Shank, resigned as president in March 2022, though kept his council seat. He was succeeded by Hightman as president.

Deb Smith and Tina Strine left the council a couple months later. Strine alleged the council was a "hostile work environment" where she faced harassment and retaliation for questioning other council members.

Shank followed them out a few months later.

>> Please consider subscribing to support local journalism. 

Miller was scheduled to go to trial this week after his case was placed on the trial list, at the request of attorneys on both sides, during a hearing in August.

Leading up to that, a hearing was called for last Thursday to formally list the case for trial. Miller pleaded guilty at that hearing instead of going forward with the trial.

Miller has been free on an unsecured $15,000 bail since October 2020.

— Reach Aimee Ambrose at aambrose@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @aimee_TYD.