The Iola Volunteer Fire Department in Grimes County has battled its fair share of fires over the years, but two months ago the department came under fire itself. Three members of the department were arrested for embezzling nearly $40,000. Since then, the department has been hard at work trying to rebuild trust. But this weekend, volunteers hope to reconnect with the community during their annual barbeque fundraiser.
“It’s been a very tough two months,” said Iola Volunteer Fire Chief Chris Roig.
Since taking over, Chris Roig has been busy cleaning house after reports of scandal infiltrated the fire station. Three members were arrested after allegedly embezzling nearly $40,000 during a two year period.
“Obviously there's been some people in the community that don't trust the fire department and that's understandable," lamented Roig. “We’ve got a solid group of people here now and we hope to show that to the community.”
In the days that followed an internal audit, sheriff's investigators along with the Texas Rangers began to look into the alleged misappropriation of funds at the department. During the investigation, authorities say they discovered three members of the Iola Volunteer Fire Department -- Chief Earl Sword, along with the department's accountant, Wanda Sword (who is also the chief's mother), and the department's secretary, Samantha Kimich (who is also related to the former fire chief) -- had used the money for personal gain. Sword has resigned as chief as a result. He had been in the position for about four years. Arrests records indicate that collectively, the trio is accused of embezzling nearly $40,000 of department money.
With what he calls an “open door policy,” Roig promises the community two things: transparency and trust.
“The community's trust is something that is very important to us," said Roig. "We've hired a CPA for our bookkeeping and she's done great keeping everything in order. When I got here I found that there were very few records kept of past events, so there are a lot of expectations of us regarding budgets, fixed asset inventories, and inventory estimates.”
On Saturday at 11 a.m. the volunteers will kick off their annual barbeque dinner and fundraiser at the fire station on Brazos Avenue in Iola.
"We're going to have brisket, chicken, homemade potato salad and beans,” said Roig. “We’ve got a live and silent auction and entertainment as well.”
The department will be auctioning off more than 20 items including: a shotgun, rifle, flat screen TV, a small boat, quilts and tools. While raising funds is critical to keep the department in operation -- Roig is optimistic about the future and says this year is going to be much different.
“Their help and efforts help fund us as a department, and our calling as firefighters is to help the community," said Roig. “We want everyone to know that we will do the best job that we can to protect."