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Fire district ex-treasurer accused of check scam; State audit puts loss at $137,866

A state audit released Tuesday accuses the former treasurer of West Seneca Fire District No. 1 of fraudulently writing 77 unauthorized checks to himself and his wife over an eight-year period.

The audit by the office of State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli accuses Norman Baker of misappropriating $137,866 in a scam by writing the checks while concealing the payments in reports to the fire district's board of fire commissioners.

The audit's findings have been forwarded to the Erie County District Attorney's Office, DiNapoli's office said.

Auditors faulted fire district officials for a "lack of oversight" in failing to review bank statements or canceled checks. Instead, the auditors found, the board relied on the treasurer's report to approve payments.

"This Fire District left the door open for fraud, and the treasurer walked right through," DiNapoli said in a written statement released with the audit. "These are taxpayers' dollars, and there must be checks and balances to protect them."

After initially telling auditors that he paid his wife to archive district records, Baker admitted to auditors that he prepared fictitious claims and altered records to avoid detection, according to the comptroller's report.

The audit says that, from November 2003 to last year, Baker wrote checks totaling $115,402 to his wife and $22,464 to himself.

Baker purportedly concealed the payments by reporting them under the names of a document management services company where he worked or fire district vendors. Seventeen of the checks, auditors said, were reported to the board as having been voided.

In May, after receiving a draft copy of the comptroller's audit, the fire district's board stripped Baker of authority over district funds, according to a letter from John Mett, chairman, to Chief Examiner Robert E. Meller.

"It appears that the board's confidence in the fire district treasurer's performance of his duties has been misplaced," Mett wrote in the letter, included in the audit.

At that time, the board also instituted new policies requiring two signatures on district checks, strengthening the way vouchers and bank statements are reviewed, and requiring the deputy treasurer and other commissioners to attend fire district management training.

The board also authorized the district's attorney to "pursue legal avenues to recover misappropriated funds," Mett wrote.

The audit started as a routine review of the fire district's 2009 and 2010 finances, but auditors expanded the scope to November 2003 after finding discrepancies in documents maintained by the treasurer.

Baker, according to the audit, had served as treasurer since 1986. The report said auditors were not able to determine when Baker began making unauthorized payments because records were not available before 2003.

The comptroller's report states that Baker acknowledged to auditors that he made unauthorized disbursements, but only for two years.

Baker could not be reached to comment.