A Hummel Report Investigation
Over the past six years a special fire alarm inspection program has generated nearly a quarter of a million dollars in fees. But the money from the inspections - mandated by the Rhode Island Fire Marshal's office - hasn't been going to the state's General Fund as most revenue does. This week, Jim Hummel tells you where it has been going and why that is changing.
Click HERE to see the agreement between the RI Division of State Fire Marshal and the RI Association of Fire Chiefs.
You can see them in thousands of buildings across the state - some right out in the open, others off the beaten track - the familiar red panel of a fire alarm system. Take a closer look and you'll see a small white sticker, showing that an inspector licensed by the state has checked to see the system if functioning properly.
Those inspectors buy the stickers - at a dollar a piece - from the state fire marshal's office in Providence. But for the past six years the nearly quarter million dollars raised by the purchase of the stickers has not gone into the state's coffers - but to the Rhode Island Association of Fire Chiefs, a private non-profit organization.
Hummel: ``That arrangement caught the attention of the Department of Public Safety and the Rhode Island State Police, who were called in to take a closer look.''
Holley: ``This whole program had a good intentions and served a purpose, but was inappropriately done.''
Lisa Holley is the legal counsel for both the Rhode Island State police and the newly-created Department of Public Safety, which now oversees the fire marshal's office.
The sticker program, along with a Uniform Test Report by the inspectors began in 2004 with the blessing of then-fire Marshal Irving Owens. The Hummel Report obtained a copy of an agreement signed by Owens allowing the money to go to the fire chiefs association as a funding source for training and education. It had the blessing of the Department of Administration, which at the time oversaw the fire marshal's office.
The fire chiefs association fronted the money for the stickers, taking in a 5 percent `administrative fee' for its efforts. A committee was set up to approve spending the bulk of the funds. And that setup chugged along for nearly six years, generating $40,000 to $50,000 annually - until Col. Brendan Doherty learned about it because someone proposed expanding the program from just fire alarms to sprinklers and other safety equipment. That raised some red flags.
Holley: ``In the meantime the colonel dispatched one of the detectives to do an administrative review of the program, to determine whether there was any wrongdoing.
Clearly it wasn't a process we would have set up under the Department of Public Safety. But there also was the issue of `Is it a bad program, is it a bad process or is there some criminal wrongdoing? Part of the detective's administrative review was to look back over the years to see if indeed if they held up their part of the agreement. And there is no indication that any of those funds went anything other than what was specified in the MOU.''
The MOU, or Marshal Owens' 2004 Memorandum of Understanding creating the sticker program.
The Hummel Report received numerous tips that the money had been spent on items outside of training or education; so we took those allegations to the executive director of the Rhode Island Association of Fire Chiefs, Richard Susi.
Hummel: ``The rumors, quite bluntly, were that the money was being misspent.''
Susi: ``That's correct, that's right.''
Hummel: ``And you want to set the record straight on that.''
Hummel: ``Money being used for travel, for raffles, for motorcycles. You see on your website, you have the clambakes - that the money was being comingled.''
Susi: ``The Rhode Island Association of Fire Chiefs has never mixed this money, this Uniform Test Report account, with any of the other accounts, or record keeping that we have.''
That is supported by the state police, who met with members of the fire chiefs association and pored over records from the past six years.
But it was clear that even though the books were in order, the funding stream was an anomaly: A state agency ordering a testing program but diverting the money to a private organization. And that, Col. Doherty determined, had to end.
On June 18th, Fire Marshall John Chartier wrote the fire chiefs association that the 2004 agreement was ending and that all future funds would be deposited directly to ``The General Treasurer of the State of Rhode Island.''
So now the money from the stickers and the test reports will go into a restricted account, controlled by the state and not the chiefs association, with the intention of continued training and education.
Susi: ``We're fire people working with the state and this idea comes up and it all seems like a good idea and it was. It was a great idea. I guess if I'm the Department of Public Safety and at the top of the DPS is Col. Doherty and the state police, out of an abundance of caution, they could see there is an opportunity that something go wrong down the line.''
Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.