A court document filed by the Tuolumne County District Attorney’s Office chronicles the investigation of a former fire chief with the Columbia Fire Protection District arrested last week on suspicion of misusing public funds.
The affidavit in support of an arrest warrant for Randall Allan Nickley, 50, of Sonora, alleges he wrote several checks from the district’s donation fund for personal expenses and overpaid himself in monthly stipends between January 2007 and June 2011.
Nickley was in Tuolumne County Superior Court for an arraignment Wednesday morning where his Coulterville-based attorney, Vangie Eidsvik-Garza, asked Judge Eleanor Provost to delay the hearing so she could review documents pertaining to the case.
“He is cloaked in the presumption of innocence,” Eidsvik-Garza said of her client, who she instructed not to speak to the media after Wednesday’s hearing.
Provost granted the request to delay entering a plea and set a new court date for Sept. 7.
The District Attorney’s Office accuses Nickley of misusing CFPD funds and embezzling public funds, which are both felonies, according to the complaint against him.
The affidavit supporting the arrest warrant features a deposition by District Attorney Investigator Chris Rogers alleging that the former fire chief — hired in December 2002 — opened an account at Umpqua Bank in July 2003 to establish a special fund separate from the district’s general operating fund.
Money generated through fundraising activities is deposited into the “Columbia FPD Firefighters’ Fund” and can be used by firefighters specifically for improving living conditions at the district’s fire station, according to the document.
This separate account is not reported to the county, unlike the CFPD’s general fund, which is only used for operational costs and supply and equipment purchases pre-approved by the CFPD Board of Directors, the document stated.
On Oct. 16, 2007, the district was given a check for $27,616.62 from the Lyle R. Scott Revocable Trust that Nickley said would be deposited into the unreported account and used to purchase life-saving equipment for fire trucks, the document stated.
Nickley “almost immediately” began writing checks out of the account without the consent of the district’s firefighters, including a $2,000 check he later admitted was a personal loan to his wife to cover debts from her previous marriage, the document alleged.
The document further alleges that Nickley wrote a $1,100 check out of the special fund for a security deposit payment on his house.
Nickley admitted to writing both checks along with another $500 check to his wife, but couldn’t remember the reason for that loan, the court document stated.
While employed as the district’s fire chief, Nickley also received a $400 monthly stipend and a share of a $100 stipend, divvied up among responders, for each call-for-service.
The district’s board voted in June 2010 to reduce the call responder stipends to $50 because of decreasing property tax revenues and the volunteer firefighters agreed to divert their shares of the stipends to the general fund.
Rogers alleges in the affidavit that Nickley continued to include his share of the stipends on the monthly payroll sheet he submitted to the county from June 2010 to May 2011. Investigators alleged that Nickley was overpaid $1,100 from the district’s general fund, which is paid for by public tax fees, over that period.
Some of the stipends Nickley collected were for service calls that he never responded to and non-district calls that are not covered, Rogers alleges in the affidavit.
The initial internal investigation was launched when the district Board of Directors placed Nickley on administrative leave in June 2011 after receiving complaints accusing him of responding to a fire call with alcohol on his breath, said Board President Stan Steiner.
An interim chief was brought in to investigate the claims and began going through records, which ultimately uncovered the other suspected financial misconduct, Steiner said.
“The more it turned over the worse it got,” Steiner said.
He said the board fired Nickley about a month later after turning over the findings of its internal investigation to Tuolumne County Counsel Gregory Oliver.
Investigators searched Nickley’s home on May 24 of this year and found two pagers, a battery charger, pager holder, a check for $66 and a wildland firefighter jacket that were later confirmed to be CFPD property, court documents alleged.
Nickley was arrested Aug. 23 on a felony warrant at his home on the 11300 block of McKellar Drive. He posted $20,000 bail and was released from Tuolumne County Jail by the next day.
“It’s a very unfortunate situation and we’re all just pretty amazed,” Steiner said.