HOUSTON – There are big questions tonight about some big spending at a Houston fire department.
It’s money that wasn’t spend on trucks or equipment; instead, thousand dollar hotel stays, hundreds more spent at a day spa and shopping sprees and an employee loan paid for by taxpayers.
Westfield Volunteer Fire Department claims to be “The Pride of the Northside,” but what the KHOU 11 News I-Team uncovered happening inside that department was a secret few people wanted to talk about.
Because our investigation discovered that money—a lot of money—meant to help brave volunteer firefighters save lives and protect property, was used on something else: What appeared to be personal pampering.
For example, charges include $468 spent at a Houston day spa.
Records show another $400 was used to purchase women’s clothes.
And no one inside Westfield Fire would explain why the department needed $700 worth of MAC and Lancôme make-up and more from Macy’s.
Financial records, obtained by the I-Team through the Texas Public Information Act, also show that in one day, someone used the fire department’s American Express Business Gold Card to run-up more than $300 in charges at stores like Victoria’s Secret, Gap, Soma Intimates, and Hot Topic.
Since Westfield Volunteer Fire Department gets its funding from tax money, that means the public got the bill.
“I have five children,” explained taxpayer Jennifer Spoonemore. “I could actually use that money they’re taking out of our taxes and they’re spending on ridiculous stuff.”
But the spending isn’t limited to “stuff.”
The I-Team found huge travel bills too, including more than $2,300 spent at hotels in San Antonio and Austin as well as a whopping charge that topped $2,500 for a trip to Lake Charles, La.
“Ohhh” moaned taxpayer and Aldine resident Ray Burton. The reason: We’d just showed him some of the department’s questionable charges.
The area that the fire department serves has a per-capita income is less than $11,000 a year.
“The boldness of it happening,” explained a shocked Burton. “I guess they feel they’re above the law to continue to do that and feel like they can’t get prosecuted.”
In fact, the I-Team found at least $40,000 in questionable expenses charged to Westfield Volunteer Fire Department’s credit cards between Dec. 21, 2010 and May 1, 2012.
What we didn’t find were receipts.
Westfield Fire says it doesn’t have any receipts regarding the purchases, explaining who bought what, and why.
Looking for answers, the I-Team went to the person in charge of the department when the spending happened.
But former Westfield Fire Chief Maurine Turrentine refused to answer our questions, including why she thought it was OK to use fire department money for personal use.
Records show Turrentine used fire funds as a personal loan, including more than $11,000 in one instance alone.
Turrentine left Westfield Fire last December.
Deputy Fire Chief Tony Searcy, who also served on the Westfield Fire Department’s Board of Directors, resigned from the department the next month, in January.
According to a letter accepting his resignation, Searcy is “ineligible to return to Westfield Fire Department based on the policies of Westfield Fire Department.”
Searcy’s brother, then-assistant fire chief Tommy Searcy also resigned that same month and is also ineligible to return to the department according to Westfield records.
Copies of two cashier’s checks show Tommy Searcy repaid Westfield Fire more than $18,000 since his resignation.
Tommy Searcy also refused to answer our questions when the I-Team approached him asking about the spending.
So was anyone watching the department?
“We didn’t have a clue,” admitted Shirley Cody. She is a commissioner and treasurer for ESD No. 25.
It funds and is supposed to oversee Westfield Fire.
“They would ask us for money and we would write them a check,” explained Cody.
“No questions asked?” wondered the I-Team.
“No questions,” answered Cody.
She admits ESD No. 25 never examined Westfield’s books even as the requests for funding grew and grew.
“People are going to see this and say ‘ESD 25 was asleep at the wheel…' that’s the only way this sort of thing can happen,” the I-Team told Cody.
“Well, I’d probably have to agree,” she replied. “Because we all trusted each other. We knew all these people and we never once thought they would do something like this.”
But some of the taxpayers the I-team spoke to are angry.
“I’d like to see them pay for it or give an answer for why money was used for things...outside of what it’s designed for,” said taxpayer Burton.
No criminal charges have been filed against anyone, but the I-Team has learned that the Harris County District Attorney’s Office is investigating.
As for our probe?
Again, the former chief and her assistants would not answer our questions.
Neither would Gary Vaughan, Westfield Fire’s new chief.
But department records show Maurine Turrentine has repaid Westfield Fire $5,000 since her resignation, and that Tony Searcy has refunded $250 as of late July.