Pleas of not guilty were entered in Webster Parish District Court on Monday for Cotton Valley fire officials, Assistant Fire Chief Adam Hurley and former Fire Chief Dennis Meshell.
The pair is accused of diverting funds intended for Fire Protection District 8 outside oversight by the board and legislative auditor.
"They basically had two checking accounts that only Chief Meshell and Assistant Chief Hurley had access to," Webster Parish Sheriff's Captain Dustin Reynolds said at the time of the arrest. "The checks and all the records dealing with those accounts were stored at Chief Meshell's house."
The accounts bear the names "Cotton Valley Fire Fighter's Coke Fund" and "The Cotton Valley Firefighter's Hazmat Training Fund."
The pair was arrested in March on identical charges of malfeasance in office, injuring public records and felony theft, after a Webster Parish Sheriff's Office investigation into the finances of Fire Protection District 8..
Their theft charge was modified to unauthorized use of an access card as theft (RS 14:67.3). That statute simply specifies the means of illegal access and refers punishment back to the standard theft statute (RS 14:67).
Meshell and Hurley claim innocence based on their assertion that the board knew the funds in question existed. They also assert the "coke fund" in particular had been passed down from fire chief to fire chief for decades.
According to legislative auditor reports going back to 1995, Meshell served as treasurer on the district board until 1998.
The 2002 legislative audit for the district by Jameson Wise and Martin mentions a "coke fund," although not by the full name alleged to be on the account. It lists four expenditures that did not have an apparent public purpose.
"We understand from the district that a separate account is maintained by the firemen called the 'coke fund' to pay for flowers and miscellaneous items that are not considered a public purpose," according to the audit. "We recommend the following expenses be reimbursed from the 'coke fund' or the public purpose be documented in the minutes of the district if the funds are paid by the district."
The audit then goes on to list expenses for a cookout, gathering and flowers. One flower expense was reimbursed the "coke fund" from district funds.
After their arrest, Meshell was fired and Hurley was placed on paid administrative leave at an April 17 board meeting. They made statements of innocence at the time as well.
"I didn't serve 35 unpaid years to throw it all away," Meshell said.
"As a career firefighter it saddens me it has turned out like this," Hurley said. "The community is who will suffer."