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Former Niantic fire chief charged with first-degree larceny qualifies for rehabilitation program

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New London — Former Niantic Fire Chief Stephen M. Wargo, who was charged earlier this year with first-degree larceny for allegedly collecting money for shifts he did not work in East Lyme, was granted a special form of probation Thursday that will dismiss the charges against him if he stays out of trouble for the next two years.

Judge Karyl Carrasquilla granted Wargo's application for accelerated rehabilitation in a New London court Thursday. Under its terms, Wargo cannot be arrested in the next two years and also must complete 50 hours of community service within that time. If he successfully follows these conditions, the charges will be dropped and his record will be wiped clean.

“While the crime is serious in nature, it’s not of such a serious nature that would prevent you from participating in and benefitting from the program,” Carrasquilla said, while Wargo stood before her. “I do not feel that you are likely to re-offend. ... This was not a crime involving any violence.”

Wargo told Carrasquilla that he had given back the amount he had stolen from the town — more than $2,000 — and also clarified to the judge that he had resigned from his position with the Niantic Fire Department last December. Wargo, who is also a lieutenant in the New London Fire Department, told Carrasquilla that he also had been suspended with pay from that position since March.

Wargo, 47, of 59 E. Pattagansett Road originally pleaded not guilty to first-degree larceny when he was arraigned in New London Superior Court in March. The severity of his charge is based on the fact that he is accused of stealing from a municipality. Defense attorney Walter D. Hussey represented Wargo throughout the case.

The allegations against Wargo came to light in December after discrepancies of timecards and submitted payroll requests had been discovered by volunteer members of the Niantic Fire Department. The department uses a mix of paid staff and volunteers.

Wargo submitted his resignation as chief for what he called "personal reasons." He had worked as a volunteer chief and paid part-time firefighter at the Niantic department.

Following a nearly three-month investigation, East Lyme police obtained a warrant for Wargo's arrest.

According to the arrest warrant, Wargo stole $2,397.53 in varying increments over a 17-month period beginning in January 2017. He did so by allegedly submitting time sheets claiming hours he had not actually worked, such as shifts he originally was supposed to work but for which he had found substitutes, being paid excess hours documented for a scheduled shift, and shifts for which he was never scheduled.

The fire chiefs in both Niantic and Flanders fire departments are volunteers and elected by members of their respective fire companies. The chief ultimately is responsible for scheduling, training, recruiting, payroll, budgeting and capital planning.

In coordination with the town’s finance director, First Selectman Mark Nickerson had said in December that there was an ongoing review of policies and procedures on payroll submissions from all fire departments.

“Whenever possible, best business practices should be implemented that would include multiple signature approvals and back-up documents,” Nickerson had said in a statement to The Day.

Nickerson said Thursday that the town has since changed its timecard submitting policies, and now requires two "nonconflictual" people in the fire departments to sign off on timecards. "We have a two-person sign off, so one person can't just put in timecards," he said.  

As fire chief, Wargo was responsible for submitting each week's time sheets for his department, Nickerson said. "The chief would turn in timecards, and of course, he was turning in his own, as well, and that's where that conflict happened." 

Wargo told police he was always aware that he had been submitting inaccurate time sheets. He stated that on some occasions, he had done so accidentally, such as when he was scheduled to work a part-time shift but then worked overtime at his other full-time job. But he also admitted that on other occasions he was "sloppy" and "failed to remove himself from the time sheet."

Wargo had further stated to police that he was "burning the candle at both ends," both personally and professionally. As a divorced father paying child support, he was under pressure and "the extra money helped," he told police.

m.biekert@theday.com

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