Former NBVFD Official Gets 5 Years

A former Natural Bridge Volunteer Fire Department treasurer will serve five years in prison after pleading guilty Tuesday to four counts of his original 15 embezzlement charges.

Robert D. Newman, 55, pleaded guilty in Rockbridge County Circuit Court to three counts of embezzlement and one count of conspiracy to embezzle. Newman had been indicted in November after many discrepancies were noticed in a financial audit performed last June of the Natural Bridge Fire Department for the previous fiscal year.

Soon after the audit was brought to the attention of law enforcement, the Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Office opened an investigation of fire department bank statements and uncovered that in about 13 months, Newman had written more than $170,000 in checks to himself with “retention loan” in the memo line.

In a summary of the evidence, Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Tiffany Bennett explained to the court Newman joined the volunteer fire department shortly after he moved to Natural Bridge.

“He had no job, his wife had no job,” she said. “He was just hanging out with the fire department.”

Newman was supportive of Justin K. Garrett, 24, in his run for Natural Bridge fire chief, Bennett said.

Garrett, who is due in court Jan. 30, was also indicted in November on four charges in connection to embezzlement at the department between May and June 2018.

Bennett said Newman allegedly sent Garrett numerous manipulative text messages asking for money to cover house and medical payments. Garrett allegedly agreed to loan Newman roughly $15,000 of department funds, which originated his respective embezzlement charges.

Newman reportedly signed a “retention loan agreement” document, claiming he would repay the money with “fundraising” and cash payments.

Investigators found Newman to have written 140 checks totaling $145,000 in the 13-month period. An additional estimated $25,000 in payments was made with the fire department debit card only the treasurer and chief had access to in that time frame.

“He was making unauthorized fuel purchases on the fire department’s dime,” Bennet said.

The investigation showed that Newman allegedly used the embezzled funds to support a vacation with his wife in Tennessee, where they renewed their wedding vows. Bennett also reported Newman allegedly paid cash for plane tickets for him and his wife to go on vacation in Europe in this time frame.

Upon executing a search warrant of Newman’s home in Natural Bridge, investigators found innumerous unopened expensive items about his residence, the commonwealth reported.

“TVs, exercise equipment, just stuff,” Bennett explained. “There were about 75 gift cards to Target, Walmart, Applebee’s, anywhere you can get gift cards.”

“The [certificate of deposit] account [of the fire department] was completely depleted, the savings was completely depleted and the checking account was almost completely depleted.

“The Natural Bridge Fire Department is a volunteer department,” she continued. “Their money is fundraised by donations from the community and a stipend from the county.”

Bennett reported the department “severely suffered” from Newman’s actions, explaining that the department had problems making firetruck payments as a result of the embezzlement.

“The bank was understanding,” Bennett said. “But it could have hurt the community if the truck had been repossessed.” Upon reviewing the terms of Newman’s plea agree

Upon reviewing the terms of Newman’s plea agreement, which includes restitution payments to the Natural Bridge Fire Department, Judge David Melesco exclaimed in court: “How in God’s name is he going to pay back $170,000?”

Newman responded that his family members would work to pay back the $170,386.83 restitution while he is incarcerated. Upon release, Newman said he plans to go into a trucking business with his son.

Melesco accepted the Newman’s guilty plea, sentencing him to 40 years with 35 suspended.

“You have five years to pay back the restitution upon your release,” Melesco said. “You are not to step foot on the property of the Natural Bridge Fire Department.”

The remaining charges against Newman were dropped.

“I’m eternally sorry,” Newman said in court Tuesday. “I just can’t wait for the day to make it right for all my friends and the community.”

The News-Gazette

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