After several years’ waiting for justice, the chief of Gig Harbor Fire & Medic One says the district can finally turn the page after state auditors found a former longtime employee bilked its taxpayers out of more than $50,000.
A Pierce County Superior Court judge sentenced Michael E. Cameron to 240 hours of community service on Dec. 10, the day after his 57th birthday, after he pleaded guilty to second-degree theft. The judge waived jail time because Cameron had no prior criminal history.
Cameron was the district’s lone maintenance worker, who started with the district as a volunteer firefighter in 1973. State auditors found he made purchases using district money that he put toward his private use or toward his side business installing sprinkler systems for lawns.
“The person that did this, he lost his job and his career, and the legal process had to run its due course, so therefore I believe he was held accountable,” said Fire Chief John Burgess, who wasn’t in the position when Cameron’s theft was discovered.
Cameron declined comment when reached at his home this week.
Gig Harbor Fire & Medic One’s insurer paid $54,000 in 2011 to settle its claim, so taxpayers were made whole, district officials said. The insurance company later sued Cameron and his wife, but the lawsuit was dismissed in July. The insurer’s attorney, Craig Evezich, said the parties reached a settlement out of court.
The district has since changed its billing practices so any purchase requires administrative approval, Burgess said. The district’s most recent audit last year was clean.
Cameron’s purchases had not been monitored. It was a $43.79 purchase that finally unraveled his seven-year history of theft, according to court papers. Records would later show that Cameron made purchases for his lawn sprinkler business going back to April 2002.
Complaints led the former fire chief, Robert Black, to review an invoice for black vinyl numbers and spray paint in May 2009. The numbers were the same as Cameron’s boat registration.
When Black confronted Cameron, the maintenance worker “appeared to go pale and stated ‘I’m sorry I’m putting you through this,’ ” court papers said.
Cameron was placed on leave that day, and the district fired him June 30, 2009. The district notified state auditors of the loss. Their report in August 2010 concluded Cameron purchased $49,627.54 in sprinkler equipment not needed for district use. It also found another $1,430.62 in personal purchases, including boat paint, sporting goods and hats.
Prosecutors charged Cameron in October for purchases totaling $5,939.27. It’s unclear why it took more than two years after the auditor’s findings to prosecute the case. The deputy prosecuting attorney who handled it was out of the office and couldn’t be reached for comment this week.
“We were hoping that it would move along faster,” Burgess said. “We inquired several times along the way. We wanted it to proceed as quickly as possible.”
Burgess said last year’s voter approval of a levy to restore funding for emergency medical response showed the community still has “faith in what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”