Check tipped officials to fire chief’s actions
September 28, 2016
STERLING — Court documents obtained by the Sterling Journal-Advocate show that a check from Northeastern Junior College to the city of Sterling was the first hard evidence of wrongdoing by former Sterling Fire Chief Kurt Vogel.
Vogel left the Sterling Fire Department earlier this year and was hired as the new chief at the Eagle Fire Department. On Aug. 11, he and his wife Hope Vogel were arrested in Eagle and charged with stealing more than $120,000 from the city of Sterling between 2010 and 2015.
According to the report from the Journal-Advocate, Vogel was in Logan County District Court last week for what was supposed to be a bond reduction hearing. Instead, Vogel's attorney, Thor Bauer of Fort Morgan, asked that the hearing be combined with a preliminary hearing set for 9 a.m. Oct. 7. Vogel and his wife Hope remain in custody in the Logan County Jail.
Northeastern Junior College check
According to an affidavit filed by Doug Copley, an investigator with the district attorney's office, city officials were first alerted that something was amiss when then-Acting Fire Chief Lavon Ritter received a check for $1,750 from Northeastern Junior College. Ritter took the check to Deb Forbes, the city's budget manager, and asked what he should do with it. Forbes was equally puzzled, since the city and Northeastern Junior College hadn't had a contract for firefighting instruction since 2010. Ritter had called the college and was told they sent a check in that amount every year. Forbes checked and the city had only received one of the checks from Northeastern Junior College.
Copley's investigation shows that the last time the city had a properly authorized contract with Northeastern Junior College was in 2010. That contract was approved by Sterling City Council and signed by then-Mayor Larry Fetzer. Subsequent contracts, from 2011 through 2016, were signed by Vogel. Throughout that time Northeastern Junior College issued six checks totaling $11,275. Only two — the one Ritter had taken to Forbes and one for $325 issued in June 2014 — ever showed up at City Hall.
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Meanwhile, Copley's affidavit shows, Sterling City Manager Don Saling, himself a former firefighter, had grown suspicious of some purchases Vogel had made before he left. The purchases included "several leather presentation helmets all size large, in various colors for the price of $488.28 each," and chromed fire axes and other firefighting tools. Saling said none of the equipment was useful for firefighting, but was meant to be displayed in a display case. Saling asked Ritter whether any of the items was at the Sterling Fire Department; Ritter checked, and they were not.
The affidavit also details an elaborate scheme in which Vogel would present fake invoices for equipment and receive partial reimbursement from state agencies. According to the affidavit, in order to get the reimbursement grants, Vogel allegedly would show the equipment was paid for with a non-existent check from a Key Bank account owned by the Sterling Fire Department Foundation, and would divert the reimbursement back to the foundation's account. The foundation actually had nothing to do with the Sterling Fire Department. The affidavit doesn't specify when city officials became aware that it existed.
In one case Vogel allegedly changed the amount the city did spend for some equipment when he requested a partial reimbursement from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The city actually paid $36,184 for the equipment but the reimbursement request showed a figure $9,400 higher. The state reimbursed $21,510, but the money never showed up in any of the city's accounts.
The affidavit shows that Vogel used the Sterling Fire Department Foundation to divert thousands of dollars that were intended to go to the city of Sterling. The foundation listed Hope Vogel as the sole officer of the foundation and she is the only one authorized to sign checks from it. The foundation was incorporated on Jan. 23, 2014, and dissolved on May 15 of this year, or about the time the Vogels moved to Eagle County. The foundation's address is listed as 428 Park Circle Drive, which is the Vogels' home address.
Copley's investigation uncovered the foundation account at Key Bank and another account for the Northstar Alternate Fire Department.
Copley's affidavit says that when CBI agents Kellen Hassenstab and Tammy Lee interviewed Kurt Vogel at his Eagle County office, he readily admitted the thefts and fraudulent transactions and said his wife had acted under his instructions.
Vogel allegedly told the CBI agents he originally intended to establish the foundation to provide grants to Sterling firefighters and had even talked to Saling about it, but that the foundation was never actually funded. When asked why he did it, Hassenstab reports, Vogel said several times it was greed.
Kurt Vogel faces charges of theft, forgery, attempt to influence a public servant and official misconduct. Hope Vogel faces charges of theft and fraud.