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Fire official pleads not guilty to theft

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A former Hungry Horse Fire Department official Thursday pleaded not guilty to charges alleging he used his position to bilk the district of about $2,600. Ross Barker, 57, was arrested Nov. 17 after the Flathead County Attorney’s Office charged him with felony theft and misdemeanor official misconduct. He was released after posting bail.

Barker is the former chairman of the volunteer department’s board of trustees, which was in charge of allocating funds and monitoring finances.

His plea was made during an arraignment in District Court before Judge Ted Lympus.

The Flathead County Sheriff’s Office launched an investigation into Barker’s alleged misconduct after it was determined the district was facing a deficit of about $70,000. No one else has been charged in connection with the financial shortfall.

The Flathead County commissioners voted earlier this month to seize control of the district until a new board of trustees can be established. County Commissioner Joe Brenneman said the fire board hasn’t met for more than a year and it is unclear how the district was able to sink so far into debt.

According to court documents, Barker’s alleged financial malfeasance occurred between July 1, 2007, and Feb. 1, 2010.

He allegedly wrote fire department checks to his wife, Jeanette, for $1,052 in May 2009.

A month later, he allegedly purchased lattice from a construction supply business for $45.88. The material was later seen at Barker’s home by an investigating Flathead County Sheriff’s Office deputy, according to court documents.

He also allegedly purchased $1,537 worth of parts for his personal vehicles with fire department money at a business in Columbia Falls.

If convicted, Barker faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $50,000 fine on the felony theft charge. The misdemeanor charge of official misconduct carries a potential penalty of up to six months in jail and a $500 fine.

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