Investigators say fire officials used funds for personal use

The Salt Lake Tribune/April 7, 2010

Arizona investigators allege two fire district officials in a polygamous community used public funds to pay for food, gifts and other items - including a trip to Idaho's Lava Hot Springs.

A probable cause statement released Wednesday reveals the Mohave County Attorney's Office began a probe into alleged financial improprieties at the Colorado City Fire District in January 2008 after receiving a tip from a restaurant owner in St. George.

The tipster told an investigator that Fire Chief Jake Barlow had used a district credit card to buy dinner for his family.

The district serves the communities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., where most residents are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

About 25 law officers used search warrants Tuesday to seize records and copy computer data from district fire stations and the homes of Barlow and David Darger, the district's secretary/treasurer.

The affidavit alleges Barlow, 53, and Darger, 40, engaged in fraud, a class 2 felony, and misuse of public funds, a class 4 felony.

In a statement, Mohave County Attorney Matt Smith said he could not elaborate on the county's investigation.

"It will take a substantial amount of time to review the evidence obtained from the search warrant, so charges, if any, cannot be filed for months," Smith said.

Michael Piccarreta, an Arizona defense attorney representing the fire officials, called Tuesday's operation the latest example of "government intolerance" for the FLDS community.

"They can investigate to their hearts content, but at the end of the day there will be no impropriety, no illegalities," Piccarreta said. "We are going to show that had they spent the time, they would understand there were reasonable rationales and government justifications for all these expenditures."

According to the affidavit, the county has subpoenaed bank and credit card statements, invoices and records detailing purchases made by Barlow and Darger between September 2004 and June 2009.

Those documents, the affidavit states, showed the district spent $22,907 at Costco between September 2004 and August 2008 - roughly $6,000 per year - for such items as sofas, file cabinets, desks and computer equipment.

Among other suspect purchases, all made in December 2007: $575 for 100 candy gift boxes; 20 $15 gift certificates to Dezereta, a gas station in Colorado City; and, on Dec. 14, an $843 Costco tab that included two spiral hams, trail mix, a fruit plate, olives, dill pickles and candy.

The affidavit states Barlow bought $1,500 in food from Sam's Club and Costco that month while also spending $837 at local eateries.

The card also paid for a queen mattress pad, size 4 diapers, a six-pack of briefs, men's dress socks, and an infant's jumpsuit in 2007.

The affidavit lists restaurant tabs, such as $288.54 spent Oct. 17, 2007, at Steak and Seafood Restaurant and $156.68 at The Claim Jumper on July 2, 2008.

A former volunteer with the district told investigators that none of the fire stations have full kitchens or sleeping quarters and he recalled being fed only "on search and rescue operations and big fire calls."

Investigators found district credit cards paid for gas, food and lodging for a trip to Lava Hot Springs, Idaho, for six people. The affidavit doesn't state when the trip occurred.

The numbers

Inside the documents

$22,907 » Sofas, file cabinets, desks and computer equipment

$575 » Candy gift boxes

$300 » Gift certificates to gas station

$843 » Hams, trail mix, fruit plate, olives, dill pickles, candy

$1,500 » Food from Sam's Club and Costco

$837 » Local eateries

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