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Former Bryson Fire Chief and wife charged with embezzlement

Former Bryson City Fire Chief Joey Hughes and his wife, Cylena, were arrested and indicted on embezzlement, fraud, and other charges last week for allegedly purloining money from the volunteer fire department’s fundraising arm.

More than $200,000 was taken over several years, according to the charges brought by the State Bureau of Investigation. The Hughes were indicted by a grand jury last week on 48 counts.


Neither Hughes nor Cylena would comment about the charges.

“I am not going to talk about nothing,” Hughes said, adding that his attorney had instructed him not to speak.

However, Hughes did say that he still felt someone who disliked him trumped up the accusations.

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“Yeah, to some point, it’s a personal vendetta,” Hughes said.

Hughes previously told The Smoky Mountain News that he was the victim of dirty politics and that he’d never misused fire department funds or abused his position.

Hughes was ousted as the chief of Bryson City’s volunteer fire department last fall after allegations arose that he had misused money donated to the organization’s fundraising arms. Cylena, who managed the bank accounts for the fundraising arms, is also accused.

The accusations related to the fire department — which came from a whistleblower within the department, led to a joint investigation by the Bryson City Police Department, the North Carolina Department of Insurance and State Bureau of Investigation.

The money allegedly taken from the fire department coffers was donated by townspeople and businesses.

Hughes was ousted as the volunteer fire chief last year following the accusations. Current fire chief Brent Avery refused to comment on anything related to Hughes and the recent developments. When asked if donations to the fire department had suffered as a result of Hughes and Cylena’s alleged actions, Avery quickly hung up the phone.

The department’s fundraising arms went unaudited, unchecked and unmonitored for years. The lack of checks and balances created an atmosphere that gave Hughes virtually total control of donations to the department and community fundraising efforts.

The town has since revised the volunteer fire department’s bylaws, which require the department to deposit all the funds it raises into an account that the Bryson City leaders can oversee. The town adopted the new bylaws in May but had been working to rewrite them for a while.

“They were working on it before it started,” said Larry Callicutt, Bryson City’s town manager.

Despite being charged with felonies, Hughes is still working fulltime in the construction department of the N.C. Department of Transportation as a quality-control inspector. Hughes checks the work of contractors hired by the DOT to ensure they aren’t cutting corners, that contract specifications are met and that they are using the proper materials for the job. Hughes also establishes quantities for proper contract payment.

Joel Setzer, the head of the DOT division for 10 western counties, said the DOT’s policy toward employees charged with a crime varies depending on the nature of the allegations and whether it impacts their job.

In Hughes’ case, “We would wait to see what the outcome is,” Setzer said.

A review of public records by The Smoky Mountain News in October revealed: money collected during fundraising drives went unaccounted for and otherwise disappeared from the books; Hughes acted solely as treasurer of the fundraising accounts and denied repeated requests from volunteer firemen during the years to share financial information; and the fundraising arm did not have a board of directors but rather a sham board existed only on paper.

Hughes allegedly maintained two secret bank accounts that the town could not access and submit falsified reports to the State Firemen’s Association, detailing how much money the relief fund had at the end of the year, where it is invested and what funds were spent on that year — which were based on fabrications.

A follow-up investigation conducted by The Smoky Mountain News in November also showed that town officials turned a blind eye to the fire department’s operations. For almost a decade, Bryson City leaders knew something was awry with the fire department’s finances but failed to get to the bottom of it for fear that Hughes would convince the firefighters to strike.



Swain Elementary PTO funds allegedly stolen

The volunteer treasurer for the East Swain Elementary Parent-Teacher Organization has been charged with embezzling tens of thousands following an investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation into missing funds.

Cylena Hughes was indicted by a grand jury on two counts for allegedly embezzling about $60,000 from the PTO, which raises money for the school.

Hughes and her husband Joey were also charged with fraud and embezzlement from the Bryson City Fire Department in a case that was unrelated but was being investigated concurrently. Joey Hughes was not charged in related to the PTO case.



The charges:

Former Bryson City Fire Chief Joey Hughes was indicted on 10 counts of making false statements on required reports, two counts of conspiracy to commit common law forgery, three counts of common law forgery, five counts of common law uttering, two counts of embezzlement of greater than $100,000, five counts of conspiracy to commit larceny of a check or bank deposit and one count of conspiracy to commit embezzlement.

Hughes’ wife Cylena, who managed bank accounts for the fire department’s fundraising arms, faces similar charges: one count of embezzlement, five counts of larceny of a check or bank deposit, five counts of conspiracy to commit larceny of a check or bank deposit, two counts of common law forgery, one count of conspiracy to commit embezzlement, two counts of common law forgery, one count of uttering forged endorsement and one count of forgery of endorsement.

Cylena was also charged with two counts of embezzlement of about $30,000 in an investigation involving the East Swain Elementary Parent-Teacher Organization.

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