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Swain gets new fire chief as probe continues

Bryson City has a new fire chief, after a police investigation spurred the ouster of long-term fire chief Joey Hughes last month.

Brent Arvey has been named as the new department head, replacing Erwin Winchester, the Swain County fire marshal who stepped in to temporarily fill the post after Hughes was fired.

Arvey is an 11-year veteran of the Bryson City Fire Department and rises to the top position from the post of 1st assistant chief, the second in command.

Though the department now has a leader at its helm, the controversy surrounding it has not subsided.

The Bryson City Police Department began an investigation into the firehouse and its finances in August, and preliminary results led the town board to fire Hughes as they continued to sort out the details.

The probe has now been turned over to the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, which will work with the district attorney’s office in the county to see if charges need to be filed.

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“Due to the number of questions that were found, that’s why the SBI was called in to do this,” said Assistant Police Chief Greg Jones, who has led the investigation. “I thought we had enough discrepancies to call the district attorney and bring in the SBI.”

Not only was the investigation uncovering more questions, it was also becoming too unwieldy for Jones and the small, seven-member police department to manage on its own, while trying to simultaneously juggle regular patrols as well.

The only documents currently filed in the case are two search warrants for the fire department’s Friends of the Firemen and Ladies’ Auxiliary bank accounts. Though it would seem likely that these two accounts would take charitable donations on behalf of the department, neither is legally equipped to do so, lacking a 501-c3 designation that allows tax-deductible charitable donations.

It’s unclear what, exactly, is in the accounts and who controls them. As a town fire department, all money that comes in — even fundraiser returns and charitable donations — are supposed to come to the town for audit and allocation. But these two accounts, said Town Manager Larry Callicutt, have never been controlled by the town.

The battle between fire department and town did not start with this investigation. In June of last year, the town board voted to take a GMC Yukon away from the department, citing allegations that it was being put to improper, non-department use.

Then-chief Hughes maintained that he’d never been approached by the board concerning the truck, and said to the board and on the fire department’s Facebook page that it was used as a first responder vehicle.

Later in the year, a firefighter told the Smoky Mountain Times that he resigned his post in protest of the way the department’s finances were handled.

The county also got into a spat with the fire department over what it was paying for fire services.

Last week, the firehouse on Main Street was shuttered while local and state investigators inventoried and audited the equipment there. With that phase finished, the inquiry by the SBI continues, with no word yet on whether charges are forthcoming.

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