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Six-year legal battle burns on

They say all they want is to go back to being firefighters.

For six years, Raymond Pawlowski and Amy McKnight have spent at least $15,000 and countless hours trying to clear their names and regain positions with the Big Tree Volunteer Fire Company in Hamburg.

The fire company has spent more than $19,000 to keep them out since they were dismissed over allegations of charging gasoline to which they weren't entitled to the department. Big Tree's legal bills are paid by taxes from residents of the fire district, together with funds it raises.

"I want my name cleared. I didn't do anything wrong," said Pawlowski, who was fire chief at the time of the allegations. "This has nothing to do with gas. It's all personal."

McKnight said paying $123 for the disputed gasoline would have been easier, "but I am not going to, because I didn't do anything wrong."

A judge has ruled the two are entitled to another departmental hearing, and issues that need to be clarified include the department's fuel use policy.

Various policies that were formulated at various times were cited by both sides, according to State Supreme Court Justice John A. Michalek, who has been hearing the case. He is a former Hamburg supervisor and town attorney.

Daniel Bozek, Big Tree president, said he would not comment because the matter is in litigation.

William Trask, the fire company attorney, said Big Tree "went through a very careful process and followed the procedures called for in its bylaws" before the two were found to have violated the fuel policy.

"They were given an opportunity to pay restitution and be reinstated to full membership, and they chose not to," Trask said.

Andrew Fleming, the attorney for Pawlowski and McKnight, said his clients will continue to pursue "a just remedy to include getting their names cleared of the inaccurate charges and getting reinstated to a fire company they still hold dear."

The town would like the matter settled but doesn't have authority over the fire company, according to Richard Boehm, deputy town attorney.

All involved are "good people who serve the community," said Councilwoman Joan Kesner, liaison with the town fire companies. "We would like to see both sides get together and settle this for the good of the community."

Pawlowski, 48, and McKnight, 35, are cousins and said fire service is a family tradition. Pawlowski was chief, and McKnight was the first woman elected an assistant chief when things started going wrong in 2000.

As chief, Pawlowski was entitled to a fire company car. He also was entitled to free gasoline, but just how much is open to question. The fire company said the limit was two tanks a month, but Pawlowski said past practice was for chiefs to have unlimited gas for the fire company car, as long as they didn't abuse the policy.

He said McKnight also was entitled to two full tanks, but, as a common practice, chiefs had approved additional gas for members who answered numerous calls, as McKnight did.

In August 2001, they were accused of using the department's credit card to buy gasoline to which they were not entitled: $1,000 worth by Pawlowski and $123 by McKnight. After a hearing, a board of inquiry determined Pawlowski had charged the company for "excessive" fuel use. He also was found to have lied to the board about a separate matter. McKnight also was determined to have rung up excessive fuel expenses. The company voted to expel both.

The two took the matter to court. Since then, various aspects of the case have been before a judge several times and twice have gone to the appellate division of State Supreme Court on appeal.

Pawlowski also is chairman of the town Conservative Party and, as an employee of the town Highway Department, is president of the blue-collar union. He acknowledged that his relations with about seven core members of the company "got strained."

If they were offered reinstatement, would they want to go back? "In a heartbeat," Pawlowski said.

e-mail: ternst@buffnews.com

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