Theft charges in fire co. heat up Upper Gwynedd

Upper Gwynedd Township is heating up — over politics outside of its fire company and alleged criminal activity within it.

The controversy emerged last week, when Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman announced the arrest of Ronald Kenneth Nolan, the former treasurer of the Upper Gwynedd Township Volunteer Fire Company, on charges including theft by unlawful taking in the case of $249,703.77 that went missing from fire company funds between 2006-2012.

Authorities allege that Nolan used the money to pay for personal expenses, including vacations to China, Jamaica, Miami, and 15 trips to Las Vegas. He also is said to have paid for gambling in Vegas casinos and costs associated with his daughter’s 2006 wedding in Las Vegas.

Details are starting to emerge that paint a picture — an election-season picture — of the commission not heeding warnings from a fire company official, according to Upper Gwynedd resident Greg Moll, a lawyer who is active in the township’s Democratic party.
Moll said Monday that commissioners did nothing when first approached with suspicions about a year ago that then-treasurer Nolan might be pocketing money.

He plans on going to Monday night’s regularly scheduled commission meeting to ask them about why they didn’t take action when they learned there might be a problem. Moll has heard that other residents or members of the fire company might attend as well.

Commissioners on Monday afternoon did not return a message asking for comment.
Joe Bifolco, president of the fire company, confirmed that he approached a commissioner in late August or early September last year suggesting that Nolan might be embezzling money. When commissioners offered no help, the nonprofit fire company itself paid $31,000 to an accounting firm to conduct a forensic audit.

Fire company officials ousted Nolan before auditors examined the records.

“We voted him out of office because we had a suspicion of misuse of funds,” Bifolco said, “and we knew by removing him, it’s just common sense, that gives us access to everything we had to get access to.”

Bifolco said the audit the fire company paid for only looked for missing money up to $250,000 because its loss or theft insurance policy on all members covers up to $250,000.

“To me, it wouldn’t have been financially responsible for us to continue counting past the amount we could collect from the insurance company,” he said.
Ferman said Friday that her office would look at more records covering more years during Nolan’s tenure.

The controversy isn’t likely to go away soon. Moll said his concern about the theft charges were not related to politics. But a municipal election will be coming up in November, when two incumbents will face challenges from Democratic candidates.

Moll pointed out that he got involved after fire company members contacted him — and that there were both Republican and Democratic members who were upset about the whole episode.

Since the missing money was identified, the fire company has embraced a number of accounting reforms — including stripping the treasurer of signing authority over expenditures and requiring multiple officials’ signatures for account transactions.

The department, whose annual budget is about $175,000, gets about $70,000 yearly from the township. It raises the rest itself.