It’s not getting better at the Flagler Beach Fire Department.
Less than seven weeks after five of the department’s members were fired, including long-time Fire Chief Martin Roberts, the man installed in Roberts’s place–Bobby Pace–is facing a felony charge of tampering with evidence and a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice, according to an affidavit filed by the Flagler Beach Police Department today.
The charges are the latest development in a series of serious conflicts that have embroiled the Flagler Beach Fire Department and City Manager Bruce Campbell going back to last summer, when Campbell first attempted to fire Roberts. But it is the first instance involving a criminal allegation. Until now, all conflicts had been the result of administrative and personality issues.
The charges, if sustained, may put in question Campbell’s judgment, who chose not only to appoint Pace the acting successor to Roberts after the latest round of firings in February (even though Pace’s experience as a firefighter is limited), but who chose to retain him–meting out only a wrist-slap in the form of a three-day suspension–as the acting chief even after conceding that Pace had erred in the matter of the probationers’ records.
This latest development may again revive another perennial question that has bedeviled the Flagler Beach Fire Department: whether it should be autonomous or consolidated with Flagler County’s.
In a phone interview, Campbell at 5:45 p.m. startlingly said he was not aware of this latest development. “I don’t know about any felony charges,” he said. “This is all news to me.” He acknowledged meeting with Flagler Beach Police Chief Dan Cody earlier today, but, he said. “I meet with Cody every day, but I was not told of any charges.” As far as he was concerned, Campbell said Pace remained the acting fire chief. “Between tonight and tomorrow there’s not going to be any changes,” he said.” He added: “The only thing I know is the investigation was completed and it was sent to the State Attorney’s office.”
He’s right: the charges were filed at the Clerk of Court’s office and sent to the State Attorney’s office. It’s up to the State Attorney to decide whether to pursue them. “If it’s up to the State Attorney, then we’re going to have to wait for what the State Attorney says,” Campbell said.
Cody confirmed his meeting with Campbell earlier in the day, and that he told the city manager that “we had filed a complaint affidavit with the State Attorney’s office and the charges were pending their findings on the complaint.” Cody added: “We have probable cause that this possibly happened, and they submit it to the state attorney’s office and they check to see if it’s enough to file the charges.”
Campbell, remarkably, insisted that because the State Attorney had not yet filed charges, the affidavit regarding Pace did not amount to a “charge,” but merely to a “complaint,” requiring no urgent action on his part.
Pace, 41, the charging papers state, on at least five occasions awarded community service hours to probationer Vitaly Tsabak “that were not earned and were in essence falsely documented.”
Patricia Davis, Tsabak’s probation officer, became suspicious when she looked at the hours submitted, because time sheets showed Tsabak logging up to five hours at a time, and doing so late in the evening, even though his job amounted to little more than janitorial duty at the fire department’s station. The station was under video surveillance. The times logged could be checked against the recordings, and were.
Davis, the charging affidavit states, “was able to confirm with Flagler Beach Fire Department staff who viewed the video surveillance of the aforementioned five alleged time periods of service that the hours were false and Tsabak’s Community Control was subsequently violated/revoked.” Witnesses at the station told the probation officer that Tsabak only stayed about an hour at a time to do the work. He Tsabak was sentenced to state prison until August 2015.
The five members of the department–the chief, firefighters Jacob Bissonnette and Shane Wood, and volunteer firefighters Steven W. Wood and Barbara Haspiel–were fired after allegations that they’d broken administrative rules regarding alcohol in the workplace. Appeals for the chief, Bissonnette and Shane Wood are ongoing. (Wood and Bissonnette’s appeal hearing ended in a split and therefore hung decision by a panel of four).
The charges get worse: “After learning that a complaint had been lodged against him,” the affidavit continues, Pace “did then destroy/erase the video surveillance depicting the aforementioned. After the files were deleted and at the genesis of the new historical recorded activity [Pace] is the only person observed” in the Flagler Beach Fire Department.
Three individuals are listed as witnesses in the affidavit: Jake Buissonnette, Donna Kearney of the Flagler Beach Police Department, and Jerry Pflueger of James Moore and Company, an accounting firm.
Before those allegations about alcohol on the station’s premises began circulating in January, Roberts, the fire chief, had given Bissonnette the go-ahead to investigate the record-falsifying allegation about Pace. Details of both sets of allegations were revealed in a 22-page independent investigative report the city manager commissioned from Daniel W. Langley, an attorney with the Fishback Dominick law firm in Winter Park. That report, filed the last day of January, relates that after Bissonnette gave Pace a heads-up about the investigation of the time sheet issue, Pace–according to other firefighters–marshaled several paid and volunteer firefighters “to submit written allegations to city management over the head of Chief Roberts” about the alcohol matter, “in order to avoid potential punishment for the alleged falsification records and to obtain a promotion.”
But the Fishback report downplayed those claims, finding them not relevant in relation to the alcohol issue. The firefighters were fired. Pace, who several firefighters have said is under the protection of City Manager Bruce Campbell, got a three-day suspension.
Pace, who lives on Lynnhurst Drive in Ormond Beach, did not come to the Flagler Beach Fire Department with an unblemished record. In February 1994, Pace pleaded no contest to a drunk driving charge, paid a $500 fine, had his license revoked for 180 days and was required to attend an alcohol safety education course.
Pace could not be reached in late afternoon. (A firefighter at the station said Pace was there, but in a meeting.) Steve Settle, the Flagler Beach City Commission chairman, was not aware of the charges when he was reached at his home and said “it would be awfully difficult to react unless I knew more of the facts.”
Sgt. Steve Parrish of the Flagler Beach Police Department said, referring to the process that led to the filing of the charging affidavit today, that “they’ve been working on it for two days.”
Campbell said the safety of the city is not in question since Pace remains the acting fire chief. Campbell’s reaction to the charging affidavit against Pace contrasts sharply with the decision he took to place his fire chief and two firefighters on paid administrative leave after allegations of alcohol improprieties emerged, but before the investigative report was conducted.
Charging affidavits are based on individual complaints and police investigations, leading up to the probable cause finding (or not). Public employees facing such charging affidavits are generally placed on leave pending the resolution of the case, even before the State Attorney has disposed of the matter. The Flagler Beach Police Department is facing just such a situation: Flagler Beach police officer Robert “Bobby” MacDonald was placed on paid leave in July, following the yet-unexplained shooting of his wife Karen McDonald. MacDonald is not facing charges. Yet he remains on leave. The Flagler County Sheriff’s Office has completed its investigation and conveyed it to the State Attorney’s office. A decision on those findings is pending.