ROCKINGHAM — A former fire chief will have to pay back more than $25,000 and perform community service after taking a plea deal on a pair of embezzlement charges.
David Allen Knight, 54, pleaded guilty in Superior Court on Wednesday to two felony counts of embezzlement.
As part of the deal, Knight will have to pay back $25,625 to Hamlet Fire and Emergency Medical Services, Inc., the nonprofit rescue squad he took money from while being in charge, according to court documents.
While the fire department is operated by the city of Hamlet, the rescue squad is not — although the fire chief is traditionally head of both. The rescue squad pays the city to operate out of the fire department.
The money was scheduled to be paid to the clerk’s office within 24 hours of entering the plea. Knight was prepared to do so by check after court.
By taking a plea deal, Knight avoids prison time. Records show the maximum punishment for the charge is 39 months. Had he been given consecutive sentences for each charge, Knight could have spent more than six years behind bars.
Records show Knight was also sentenced to 24 months of supervised probation and ordered to complete 100 hours of community service during the first 180 days of said probation.
Knight was arrested last November following a nearly 20-month investigation by the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation.
Knight announced his retirement in October of 2015 after 35 years of public service. He first joined Hamlet Fire Department after graduating high school in 1981 and became chief in 1987.
An incident report was filed with the Hamlet Police Department on March 9, 2016 after the rescue squad looked into the finances and “there were some discrepancies there,” current Fire Chief Calvin White said last year. He added there were a wide range of purchases that “didn’t make any sense to us” and they felt the matter needed further investigation.
Hamlet police requested assistance from the SBI and recorded interviews on March 10 and 11. Those recordings were turned over to Special Agent Andrew Pappis, who took over the investigation.
White said there was “a lot of paperwork to look at.”
Police Chief Scott Waters said the SBI was contacted after consulting with District Attorney Reece Saunders to avoid any conflict of interest because of the “close working relationship” between the police department and fire and rescue.
During court on Wednesday, Scott Harkey, a financial crimes prosecutor with the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, said White and Assistant Chief Richard Lassiter discovered financial records were not left behind when Knight left. He added that copies had to be obtained directly from the bank and credit card company.
Knight’s expenses, according to Harkey, included “questionable purchases” of gas, meals, travel to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and alcohol.
Court records show the offenses happened between Feb. 12 2009 and Dec. 31, 2014 for one charge and between Jan. 1 and Dec. 8 of 2015, when he retired.
Harkey said Knight was interviewed as part of the investigation, in which he denied “any broad use of rescue squad funds” and only acknowledged Walmart purchases for personal expenditures. Knight is said to have denied purchases from Bed Bath and Beyond, Best Buy and various websites “all of which clearly were not made for the benefit of the Rescue Squad or Hamlet Fire and EMS.”
Defense attorney Butch Jenkins said Knight “did a good job fulfilling his duties but he did not do a good job managing the money,” adding financial management “was not something that he was trained to do.”
Jenkins said Knight has received 15-20 letters from people attesting to his good character: “He is a good man that made some bad mistakes.”