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April 20, 2012 05:55 PM

Tea Fire Dept. 'Devastated' By Embezzlement

Tea, SD

Instead of putting out fires, the Tea Volunteer Fire Department is dealing with a financial mess.

Authorities say the department was blindsided by its bookkeeper, 46-year-old Denae Baustian, who is facing a felony grand theft charge for allegedly stealing more than $170,000 over two years.

The yearly budget for the Tea Fire Department is typically between $90,000 and $100,000 a year. While Baustian is accused of taking nearly all of that, authorities say she didn't wipe out their entire budget because they believe she was dipping into savings accounts.

"During the course of this investigation, to say the department was blindsided by this is probably an understatement," Lincoln County State's Attorney Tom Wollman said.

Questions about the Tea Volunteer Fire Department accounts started to arise last fall after new President Dale Cook wanted to get a handle on the finances. He talked about the case with Wollman at a news conference Friday afternoon.

"As I was collecting my information so I could make proper decisions that is when I stumbled across it," Cook said.

That's when Cook contacted investigators. State auditors took a look at the books and when the embezzlement scheme was discovered, Baustian stepped down.  On Thursday, she turned herself in for felony grand theft.

Officials say Baustian kept two different sets of books. One was the accurate set of financial records and the other contained false financial reports that she would present to the fire department every month.

"A good sum of the money came from the separate accounts we have out there for deferred compensation and a retirement account that we have and a scholarship account as well," Cook said.

The fire department has since made changes by consolidating bank accounts and having more external audits. It’s also changing the process to screen new firefighters.

Cook says the department will continue to be dedicated to providing the best service it can to the community of Tea.

"Obviously, we're not happy about what took place; however, we cannot change what took place. The only thing we can ask for is that we have the support of the community that's behind us and this will in no way affect the quality of service that we provide the community and the townships we provide support for," Cook said.

KELOLAND News called Baustian Friday afternoon and she said she had no comment on the charge she faces.

If she is convicted of grand theft, she could face up to 15 years in prison.

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