BARRE — A former Barre firefighter, whose resignation in January coincided with the launch of an independent investigation into the suspected misappropriation of union funds, is facing a felony embezzlement charge.
Jeffrey Cochran, 34, of Barre, was cited by state police this week, capping a three-month investigation into transactions that were flagged during an internal audit of the books for the local firefighters’ union. Cochran, an 11-year member of the city’s fire and ambulance department, was president of the local union when he resigned Jan. 24.
State police have accused Cochran of fraudulently converting money belonging to the union for his own use. He is expected to face a felony count of embezzlement when he is arraigned April 24 in Washington County criminal court in Barre.
State police did not disclose the extent of the alleged embezzlement but indicated their investigation was sparked by an audit that turned up a number of questionable Internet transactions and some other “suspicious charges.”
According to state police, the suspicious charges occurred between Oct. 1, 2012, and Jan. 9 of this year. Cochran was president of the union and in control of its finances during that time, they said.
City Manager Steve Mackenzie declined to comment on the matter Thursday, describing it as a personnel issue involving a former employee. He did confirm that Cochran, who was a lieutenant in the department, resigned earlier this year.
Sworn affidavits detailing the police investigation won’t be public until after Cochran’s arraignment.
However, Capt. Matt Cetin, the firefighter who was elected to replace Cochran as union president, offered a preview Thursday of what to expect.
Although Cetin didn’t have a hard number, he said the amount involved was probably “less than $5,000” and included more than $1,000 of the money that local firefighters raised for the Muscular Dystrophy Association through a coin drop held last year.
Cetin said the union has since made the appropriate donation to the MDA.
“Until we found out about the money being missing, we didn’t know it had been taken,” he said.
According to Cetin, union members of the local fire department — a “brotherhood” in many respects — were shaken when it appeared evident that one of their own had misappropriated money.
“A lot of the guys felt betrayed,” he said.
Cetin described Cochran, who joined the department in 2003, as “a good guy.”
“I can’t explain why people make those bad type decisions,” Cetin said of the apparent embezzlement. “All I can say is that immediately upon learning of this, the union made it right.”
According to Cetin, the city’s firefighters were insistent that the crime not be covered up and contacted state police.
“They wanted people held accountable,” he said.
The decision to involve the state police Bureau of Criminal Investigation stemmed from the fact that Cochran was a city employee, and Cetin said turning the case over to the city’s police was deemed inappropriate by Chief Tim Bombardier, who heads both the fire and police departments.
Cetin said the union’s board became aware that something might be amiss after recently filling a secretary-treasurer’s position that had been vacant for some time. He said the firefighter selected for that post appropriately conducted an audit of the union’s finances and flagged a series of purchases that “didn’t seem to make sense.”
According to Cetin, the police investigation traced those purchases to a union credit card issued to Cochran. He did not say what had been purchased, but indicated the items were “clearly not for union business.”
Cetin said the episode has prompted the union to modify its operational policies and suspend the practice of issuing credit cards to executive board members. He said two signatures are now required for all checks in the wake of what the union views as a broken trust.
“Our members are very disappointed,” he said, expressing their concern that an isolated incident not be viewed as a reflection on a department that is committed to providing top-notch service to Barre residents.
“One person made a very bad decision,” he said. “That doesn’t mean the whole union and the whole department is (bad).”
Cochran could not be reached for comment.
david.delcore @timesargus.comMORE IN Central Vermont
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