4 Investigates: Mora County volunteer fire chief fired amid fraud allegations
January 16, 2019 10:34 PM
MORA, N.M. - After more than 25 years with the Mora County Volunteer Fire Department, Dennis Romero, who most recently served as the fire chief, was fired and accused of embezzlement.
After this week's firing, the gates to the fire department building were chained and locked for about 24 hours while inventory was taken inside.
Romero told 4 Investigates that he and other volunteer members were “treated like thieves.” He said he had been fired and accused of embezzling roughly $280,000. Romero denied any accusations of fraud and said, “I don’t have access to that kind of money.”
This comes off the heels of a months-long internal investigation into the fire department’s finances.
“It was really kind of a slush fund,” said Mora County attorney Michael Aragon.
Aragon said the county’s suspicions started with a questionable purchase made in May of 2018. Roughly $1,500 was reimbursed to the fire chief’s daughter, Denise Duran, for luxury flooring. The red flag was in the paperwork provided to county officials: the invoice number was “1234” which investigators deemed suspect.
A side-by-side comparison from the vendor-led investigators to believe the invoice provided was a fabricated document.
In a deposition interview conducted during the internal investigation, Romero was questioned about the invoice.
“Whoever this came from — it’s fraud,” said the internal investigator, to which Romero replied: “Ask Denise, she’ll answer your questions.”
The questionable reimbursement to the fire chief’s daughter prompted further investigation, according to County Attorney Aragon.
“There were some that were obviously — in my mind — were not legitimate expenditures from gas card expenditures, propane expenditures, computer expenditures… salaries with no documentation,” Aragon said. “Those add up pretty quickly.”
Aragon would not speculate on a total dollar figure of questionable purchases, only saying that it's possible the number could reach into the tens of thousands of dollars range.
4 Investigates asked Romero if he believed all the expenses and charges made on behalf of the fire department were legitimate.
“Yes, I wouldn’t do them otherwise,” Romero responded.
The internal investigation identified dozens of questionable purchases, including payments made to several of the former chief’s family members. However, Romero told 4 Investigates that Mora is a small community where lots of people are related. He also said the family members who received payment provided legitimate services.
No criminal charges have been filed regarding the allegations. However, the findings of the internal investigation have been handed over to state agencies for consideration.
Updated: January 16, 2019 10:34 PM
Created: January 16, 2019 08:42 PM
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