by Emily Waldrep
Major discrepancies in Colmesneil Volunteer Fire Department's forensic auditing report conducted in June of last year led to an investigation by the Texas Rangers, and the indictment of Colmesneil Fire Chief, Stephen Bell.
According to First Assistant Criminal District Attorney Lou Ann Cloy, the case was reviewed and the Texas Rangers, along with other state agencies and an auditing firm, were contacted to conduct an in depth investigation.
"When the investigation was completed, that evidence was presented to the Grand Jury and Stephen Bell was indicted for Theft by a Public Servant of more than $1,500 dollars but less than "$20,000 dollars," Cloy said. "The case of more than $1,500 dollars but less than $20,000 dollars is a state jail felony which carries the range of 6 months to 2 years in prison. However, Stephen Bell is a public servant; he is the Colmesneil Fire Chief, therefore the charge is raised a degree, and Stephen Bell is facing a Third Degree Felony which carries a range of punishment of 2 years to 10 years in prison and a possible fine of $10,000 dollars."
Tyler County Judge Jacques Blanchette said that after the signing of SB 917 into law, commissioners wanted to be sure that Volunteer Fire Departments were in compliance with the accountability requirements set forth by the law, which required Fire Departments to keep documentation of where tax dollars were spent within the department and submit an audit. A county auditor conducted an internal audit of the VFD's books and ultimately informed the commissioners that she could not complete the audit on four of Tyler County's fire departments because they did not provide sufficient documentation. With this information, commissioners voted to call in outside forensic auditors to attempt to construct an audit trail from individual records.
Their report noted that Colmesneil deposited 82.52 percent of the tax proceeds and spent a total of $139,364.12 from January 4, 2010 until September 27, 2011. Only 19.5 percent of that money had valid support while 69.37 percent had no support at all.
Bell turned himself in at Tyler County Justice Center October 16. His bond was set at $75,000.