The former chief of the Mint Hill Volunteer Fire Department has pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $225,000, using the money to support a gambling habit and finance his personal lifestyle.
Jeremy Russell, 38, could face 10 years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine when hes sentenced, according to the U.S. Attorneys Office. The money he embezzled and the property he bought with it can be seized by federal authorities, and hell be required to pay restitution.
The embezzlement scheme Russell is linked to lasted from May 2010 to April 2012, according to court documents.
Russell set up a sham corporation called Regional Medical & First Responder Supply Connection and arranged a mail drop and bank account in the companys name that he had access to, court documents say. The company is not listed in the N.C. Secretary of States records.
According to the documents, Russell submitted bogus invoices from Regional Medical for equipment and services that were never used. The invoices were generally small, under $5,000, which helped Russell avoid detection, a fire official who approved some of the invoices said.
We run a lot of calls, and running two ambulances like we do for transport, its very expensive to operate, so when the bills came in, it just looked like it was day-to-day operations, said Jerry Mullis, the chairman of the Mint Hill Volunteer Fire Departments board of directors. You put your trust in people. Its what weve done for almost 60 years. Im chairman of the board of directors. I sign the checks. I see the invoices. It was just not questionable.
Mullis said the department has significantly revised its processes for paying for equipment and receiving goods. He said fire service was never affected. Mint Hill Mayor Ted Biggers did not return messages seeking comment.
Russell was hired as a paramedic in the summer of 1994. The father of four lived in a modest one-story home and doted on his mother, Mullis said.
As chief, Russell oversaw a department that is mostly volunteers, although the town pays for five full-time employees on each shift. The department also receives contributions from citizens and money from Mecklenburg County.
Russell has been credited with helping improve the quality of the fire department. He can be seen at the center of a 2007 Charlotte Observer photograph, holding an oversized check for $14,147 slated to furnish a new training room and education library for firefighters.
In 2008, he sat on a committee to interview applicants to be police chief.
This past spring he told the Mint Hill town commissioners that the department needed money for several more full-time employees to ensure adequate coverage of all three shifts.
Mint Hill officials and federal authorities have not released the subpoena charging Russell, so its unclear when investigators or town officials suspected something was wrong.
But late last winter, town commissioners held three closed-door meetings about Russell, although officials wouldnt discuss details. Russell was put on disciplinary suspension April 13 and resigned later that day. Staff researcher Maria David contributed.
Wootson: 704-358-5046; Twitter: @CleveWootson
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