Two former employees of the south suburban Roberts Park Fire Protection District are suspected of embezzling more than $100,000 over the past two years from the financially strained firefighting and paramedic service, the Better Government Association has learned.

The BGA isn’t revealing the names of the individuals – who are suspected of stealing the taxpayer money in increments, at least in part through wire transfers –because they have not been charged with a crime. The Cook County state’s attorney’s office is conducting a criminal investigation into the matter, several sources said.

The mayor of Justice—which is served by the fire protection district, as is much of Hickory Hills—said he’s concerned the alleged theft and resulting upheaval may have impacted firefighter staffing levels in town, although agency officials insist that’s not the case.

“It hasn’t affected staffing or public safety,” said Richard Ryan, attorney for the fire protection district. “Everything is still running.”

Either way, the allegations represent the latest trouble at the district. Not only did the fire chief resign under pressure in August, the agency has had difficulty getting the Village of Justice to pay its bills on time.

Justice Mayor Krzysztof Wasowicz said in a recent interview that at the end of 2010, the village was $400,000 behind on its payments to the district, but has since cut the deficit to about $200,000.

Wasowicz said the village became delinquent starting in 2009 when redevelopment ground to a halt, tax revenues dropped and the state fell behind in reimbursements.

“Our budget went from $9 million to $6 million,” he said, adding “we are current on our payments for this year—we are still paying on last year.”

Meanwhile, the alleged embezzlement has created its own turmoil in the department, which includes about 70 full-and part-time paramedics and firefighters.

In recent months, the two people suspected of taking the money resigned and, at the end of August, Fire Chief Frederick Vollinger also quit, feeling pressure from the district’s board.

Vollinger told the BGA that members of the fire protection district’s board of trustees indicated that they held him somehow responsible for the financial shortfall, though he never got a full explanation of what that actually meant.

“I could tell there was an elephant in the room,” he said, “but I was not told what it was.”

“A fire chief’s job is typically operations: making sure fire trucks are on the road, ambulances are working, personnel is at work, that was my focus,” Vollinger added. “As far as the bills going in and out, I signed them….I am not an accountant and at some point you have to trust that people are doing what they are supposed to do.”

Roberts Park Trustees Joe Kelly and Steve Stratakos did not return telephone calls for comment, and Trustee Patrick Lorenz referred inquiries to Ryan.

One of the two suspects spoke with the BGA on the telephone and denied taking any money illegally from the agency. The other suspect could not be reached for comment.

The alleged scheme began to unravel last spring when auditors hired by the agency noticed payroll irregularities during their annual review of the district’s income and expenditures, Vollinger said. (The annual budget is just over $3 million.)

The payroll—which at the time was handled in-house—is now outsourced to a private firm, he added.

This article was reported and written by BGA Senior Investigator John Conroy. He can be reached at (312) 453-0632 or at jconroy@bettergov.org.

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