WILKES-BARRE — The city’s former purchasing director on Friday said a Department of Public Works employee admitted to him he had taken city gasoline for his personal vehicle, but he does not believe the person committed any crime based on extenuating circumstances.
Ron Trimble said the employee, whom he declined to identify, came to him shortly after he was interviewed by Luzerne County detectives and told him he had admitted to them he had taken gas. Trimble said he doesn’t believe there was any criminal wrongdoing, however, because the man was advised to do so by a supervisor.
“He was out at night in a snow storm using his personal vehicle. He asked if he could get gas and he was told (by his boss) yes,” Trimble said. “Did he steal it? No. He was told to get the gas, but that does not make it right.”
Trimble, who retired several months ago, said he expects to be a key witness for prosecutors, who are close to wrapping up the investigation into missing fuel that was prompted by a Times Leader investigation in July.
The newspaper discovered the city could not account for nearly 18,000 gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel that was dispensed from pumps at the DPW building between Dec. 1, 2011 and June 22, 2012.
The state Department of Revenue later conducted an investigation that found more than 67,000 gallons were unaccounted for from July 2010 to July 2012. The Department of Revenue billed the city for $25,918 for taxes, penalties and interest on the fuel, which is only tax-free if it can be shown it was used for official purposes. The city has appealed that ruling, which remains pending.
District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis on Friday said she expects to make an announcement within a few weeks regarding whether criminal charges will be filed against any employees.
Salavantis initially estimated the investigation would have been completed by January. The probe turned out to be far more complex and time-consuming than she had expected, she said. “We had boxes and boxes of documents we had to go through,” Salavantis said. “We’d do one interview, and find five more people we’d want to follow up with. A large amount of time went into this investigation.”
Trimble was advised by investigators that people other than the employee he spoke to had also admitted taking fuel, some by filling up portable gasoline tanks that they then dispensed into personal vehicles, he said.
He stressed he had no knowledge anyone was taking gasoline. He said he initially told investigators he was “99.7 percent” sure no one had stolen fuel.
“I was proven wrong by other peoples’ testimony,” he said. “I don’t know why they would steal gas. It’s stupid.”
Salavantis said she could not comment specifically on Trimble’s statements because the investigation is still active. Speaking generally, she said she is aware “certain individuals may have improperly taken gas.”
“We are looking into every possible theft that may have occurred,” she said.
Despite the admissions made by some employees, Trimble believes, overall, that the amount of theft that will be found will be small, he said.
“When it comes down to how much was stolen, it will probably be less than 100” gallons, he said.
He believes the majority of the missing fuel was a matter of poor record keeping by employees, who failed to fill out logs detailing how much they dispensed.
“I can prove it. My trucks were used every day,” he said, referring to garbage trucks at DPW. “There are landfill slips to prove it. But they did not mark the gas down.”
After The Times Leader’s article appeared in July, city officials took steps to ensure employees took more care in filling out the logs. The city also vowed to install an electronic system that will allow it to track fuel consumption by requiring employees to insert a key and enter a vehicle’s mileage.
The system, which is in the process of being installed, is part of a $6 million project to increase energy efficiency that was awarded to Johnson Controls earlier this year.