Audit: Ex-Speedway fire chief accused of misusing $62K in town funds

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SPEEDWAY, Ind. (WISH) — A state audit released Friday accuses the former Speedway fire chief of misusing more than $62,000 in taxpayer money – including setting up a personal bank account with town funds and using a town credit card to make personal purchases for nearly three years.

The audit alleges that more than $42,000 in fire department funds were deposited into the account set up by former fire chief Mark Watson. The money deposited came from billings for fire protection service, refunds from vendors, and fees paid by recruits, among others, according to the audit.

The audit also states “the funds deposited were not used for fire departments purchases.” Instead, the audit alleges they were used by Watson to make payments on his own credit card, cash withdrawals, payments to soccer organizations and a payment on a 2013 Toyota Tacoma pick-up truck.

The audit also alleges that former fire chief Watson used Town of Speedway credit cards to make purchases for himself totaling more than $7,300.

Those items included a gun, a baton, a holster, a 46-inch television and other home and lawn improvement items, the audit stated.

Watson, who resigned in October, failed to show up for an exit conference last month. He has not been charged, but the results of the audit were forwarded to the local prosecutor’s office and the Indiana Attorney General.

A man who answered the phone at a number listed for Watson identified himself as a relative, and then said Watson was out of town and could not be reached. A reporter left his contact information for Watson, who had yet to return a call Friday afternoon.

“This is incredibly disappointing,” said town manager Ian Nicolini. “We’re disappointed. We’re disgusted. The alleged behavior that’s mentioned in that report isn’t a reflection of the town of speedway or the men and women that work here.”

According to a statement released by the town of Speedway Friday, town officials first discovered the purchases made by Watson on Oct. 17, 2014. It was then the State Board of Accounts was notified and the audit was requested. Ten days later, officials spoke with Watson, who admitted to making the purchases, and after which requested to resign immediately.

The alleged misuse went on for three years. The audit also chided the town for having “deficient internal controls.” When asked if the town should shoulder any of the burden for the alleged misuse, Nicolini said:

“Our clerk-treasurer was appointed in 2013 and myself in the middle of 2014. We were both tasked with strengthening our internal controls.
We knew that was an area we needed to work on,” he said. “If there is a silver lining to it, it’s that we were implementing internal controls and standards that helped us identify some of these purchases and allowed us to take action quickly.”

Nicolini said as of Friday, the funds totaling up to $83,000 (which includes $21,000 fee from the audit) had not been remitted back to the town of Speedway. He did not know if Watson was prepared to return the funds, adding that they had not spoken since he resigned in October.

Griffin Elbert, a Speedway resident who lives within 300 yards of the fire department, said: “I think it’s kinda ridiculous he’s spending all that money on TVs and personal things he it’s ridiculous he would use the town funds for that,” he said. “A position like a fire chief, abusing that power is not something you want in this town.”

Nicolini said that that incident should not been seen as a reflection of the fire department, or town officials.

No one from the Speedway fire department would agree to discuss the issue on camera and referred further questions to Nicolini.

Captain Dave Bursten with Indiana State Police, said that the state police investigation would be completed by the end of the month and forwarded onto the Marion County prosecutor’s office.

Peg McCleish, a spokeswoman for Prosecutor Terry Curry, said: “The matter is now under investigation for potential criminal charges.”