Pennsylvania prosecutors have filed new criminal complaints against New Lexington Fire Equipment president Betty Jo Sanner.
A total of 67 charges include allegations of theft and receiving stolen property and several fire departments have filed civil suits against the company seeking reparations for apparatus not received.
At press time in mid-July, the felony criminal charges filed against Sanner involved 14 fire departments from Virginia to New Hampshire and Michigan to Maryland, and six vendors for unpaid goods and services.
Three fire departments have also filed civil lawsuits in Somerset County, Pa., seeking damages.
The alleged thefts and misappropriations exceed $1.3 million, according to Jason Hunter, chief of the Somerset County Bureau of Investigation. He is with the Office of The District Attorney, the lead prosecutor in the cases against Sanner.
Sanner said New Lexington was open and apparatus was being completed as late as mid-July, despite reports in local newspapers that said the business had been shuttered indefinitely. Hunter also reported in some of his affidavits that the business had been closed.
Sanner wrote in an email to Fire Apparatus that: “While it is true that we were closed temporarily, that is all it was, temporary. There were signs on the door and a message on the phone, but everyone chose to see it in a different light. It was reported in my local paper yesterday [July 13] that we had ‘closed up tight, with no signs of reopening’. The employees read that with humor during their morning break. The guys have worked this week, completing a truck which will be delivered tomorrow, Saturday [July] 15th, to Churchville, Va.”
While Sanner responded to email messages, phone calls to Sanner at her home and business were not returned. Her lawyer, Matthew G. Melvin of Somerset, Pa., did not return calls or emails.
In a second email from Sanner, to the magazine, she said she was gratified by the amount of support she’s receiving from loyal customers, workers and vendors.
“I am receiving tremendous support from my customers through all of this,” Sanner wrote in her email to Fire Apparatus. “It is sometimes difficult to focus on the positive when things are getting so out of control. Then, I get a call, or an email, or a letter from many of our customers offering their support.”
Sanner chalks up her business problems to “a few former employees,” bent on destroying the business and Sanner as well.
“People who know me, are familiar with the company, the current employees, and the product, are already aware of the truth,” she wrote in the email. “Hopefully soon, everyone else will be as well.”
Sanner had promised to open up to questions and answers after a preliminary hearing on the charges had concluded on July 20.
The first criminal charges against Sanner were filed in December. Dozens more followed as fire departments complained to the Somerset District Attorney’s office that they had not received apparatus or services for which they had paid. (See April Fire Apparatus story on initial charges and investigations.)
“I am very hopeful that we’ll be able to help the departments get their trucks or their money back,” said Hunter. “Our goal through the DA’s office is to effect the best outcome for the victims.”
He said that Somerset District Attorney Jerry Spangler has “pledged his support to help every department” recoup its losses.
“We’re very serious about that,” Hunter said. “Some departments are paying on loans for apparatus they don’t have. They held [food] sales, pizza sales, town fairs and other fundraising activities to buy that apparatus and they have nothing to show for that work.”
Three departments were expecting New Lexington to build apparatus using Department of Homeland Security money they had received. Two additional departments received funding from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources for apparatus.
Hunter said he and his office are working with unspecified “outside agencies” to resolve the criminal cases. Those agencies likely include the U.S. Department of Justice, because of the federal funds involved and the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office because of state grant money.
According to court files, Sanner, 42, of Markleton, Pa., has been charged as followed: 15 counts of theft by failure to make required disposition of funds received; 13 counts of theft by unlawful taking or disposition; 19 counts of receiving stolen property; 15 counts of theft by deception; four counts of passing bad checks; and one count of theft of services.
She was expected to appear in district court in Meyersdale, Pa., on July 20 for a preliminary hearing before Judge Douglas McCall Bell.
Court records name the following departments as victims the alleged crimes:
Clover Fire Company, Pottsville, Pa., paid New Lexington $137,500 for a truck it never received. Much of the money for the apparatus was funded by a Department of Homeland Security grant.
Cranesville Fire Department, Cranesville, Pa., paid $10,021 for a skid unit it never received. Fifty percent of the cost was funded by a Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources grant.
Deep Creek Volunteer Fire Company, McHenry, Md., paid New Lexington $33,786 for a truck body it did not receive.
Farmington Volunteer Fire Department, Farmington, Pa., gave New Lexington a $31,454 Ford F550 cab and chassis and $100,648 to build a fire apparatus it did not receive.
Nashville Volunteer Fire Department, Spring Grove, Pa., made a $5,445 down payment on a skid unit, representing a 50 percent grant received from the state. The department never received the skid unit or a refund.
Community Fire Company of Rising Sun, Rising Sun, Md., paid a total of $272,473 for a new apparatus. Of that, $112,600 was to be used for a Peterbilt cab and chassis. In order to get clear title to the completed truck, the department had to pay an additional $57,384 as not all the money Rising Sun had given to New Lexington for the chassis had been transferred to the dealer, according to court records.
Holderness Fire Department, Holderness, N.H., paid $133,408 to New Lexington for a new truck that was to include $25,000 worth of equipment. When the department took delivery, the equipment was missing. Additionally, Holderness paid New Lexington $3,916 for a performance bond, to ensure the successful completion of the apparatus, but New Lexington allegedly never excuted the bond. The cost of the bond and the missing equipment totals $28,916.
Wauseon Fire Department, Wauseon, Ohio, claims $130,586 for a tanker for which it contracted with New Lexington. The department supplied a Sterling cab and chassis. The truck was not completed and the department took possession of the unfinished apparatus and will have to pay someone additional money to complete it.
Kenockee Township Fire Department, Avoca, Mich.. paid New Lexington $241,876 to build two apparatus and did not receive them.
Volant Volunteer Fire Company, Volant, Pa., is owed $72,000 toward an apparatus New Lexington built and delivered. The chassis was repossessed after non-payment by New Lexington.
Lehman Volunteer Fire Company, Lehman, Pa., paid $137,286 for a new truck plus $10,000 of new equipment, which was not on the apparatus when delivered. Additionally, Lehman had to reach a separate agreement with the chassis dealer to keep the truck from being repossessed.
Toms Brook Volunteer Fire Department, Toms Brook, Va., paid $94,394 for a tanker it never received. Much of the funds were from a Department of Homeland Security grant.
Prescott Community Fire Company, Lebanon, Pa., paid $101,290 for a tanker it never received. Additionally, the department provided a collapsible tank and two radio heads, valued at over $2,000, that have not been returned.
Harmonville Fire Company No. 1, Plymouth Meeting, Pa., paid $289,698 for an apparatus it has not received. Much of the funds were from a Department of Homeland Security grant.
In addition to the fire departments, the court has recognized at least five vendors as alleged victims of bad checks, theft of services and goods. These vendors are:
Fol-Da-Tank, Milan, Ill.; Genesis Emergency Equipment, Aberdeen, Md.; Mid-America Stainless, Cleveland, Ohio; Mid-State Tank Company, Sullivan, Ill.; and Tri-County Motor Sales Inc. in Somerset, Pa.
Concurrent with the criminal proceeding three fire departments have filed suit against New Lexington and Sanner seeking damages from alleged illegal dealings.
The Volant Volunteer Fire Company received a notice in March that New Lexington Fire Equipment was in default for failing to respond to the department’s suit filed on Jan. 20. A judgment of $150,581 is pending against New Lexington, according to court records on file in the Court of Common Pleas of Somerset County.
Volant’s lawsuit typifies the problems other departments seem to have had with New Lexington.
According to the complaint, Volant alleged it paid for a pumper/tanker that was not delivered. The community received a 2004 fire fighting vehicle grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Assistance to Firefighter Grant Program to buy the apparatus.
According to court records, Volant ordered the apparatus from New Lexington in April 2005, expecting delivery by October.
The Volant suit charges “… The defendant has wholly neglected to do and perform all things necessary for the purchase, manufacture and completion of the pumper/tanker fire truck promised to and paid for by the plaintiff.”
In June, Toms Brook Volunteer Fire Department filed a similar lawsuit in the same court. Toms Brook alleges that New Lexington took two payments, totaling $94,394, toward a three-step installment for a $141,591 tanker, but never delivered it. Because the truck was being funded with money from the Department of Homeland Security, it was expected to be done and delivered by Dec. 31. As of March 20, no work had been done on the 3,500 gallon tanker.
Toms Brook lawyer Andrew L. Blattenberger of Pittsburgh, Pa., wrote: “New Lexington and its agents never intended to provide the agreed to products and services as promised by New Lexington and its agents.” His suit noted “a pattern of similar conduct with its customers.”
Also in June, the Lincoln Borough (Pa.) Volunteer Fire and Rescue Company No. 1 filed a notice of intent to file a lawsuit in the Court of Common Pleas of Somerset County. The complaint had not been filed at press time and details were not available.
A 2003 profile story about the company in Fire Apparatus magazine reported that New Lexington was building 45 units annually with about $7 million in gross sales.
Sanner had been employed by New Lexington for several years when she purchased 65 percent of the company in 2001 according to the magazine story.
Hunter, the chief of the Somerset County (Pa.) Bureau of Investigation and the lead prosecutor in the cases, said the fire departments have been cooperative as he collects evidence.
“Everybody has been extremely helpful and provided me with every bit of information they have,” he said. “I appreciate the cooperation of the fire departments and I promise we are doing everything we can to help.”
Hunter said he’s certain there are other departments that had problems with New Lexington and he encourages them to step forward for help.
He can be reached by phone at 814-445-1456 or by email at email@example.com.