Former Deering firefighter indicted on wiretap charge

Last modified: 6/3/2013 9:30:53 AM
A former lieutenant in the Deering Fire Department who was at the center of a recent hiring controversy has been indicted on a felony charge of wiretapping staVff conversations last year, including at least one senior-level meeting.

Stephen Brooks, 39, allegedly placed a recording device inside the Deering Fire Station on or around May 29, 2012, and “recorded a period of time including, but not limited to, a meeting between senior staff of the Fire Department,” according to a direct indictment, issued May 15 by a Hillsborough County grand jury.

Because it is a direct indictment, the case will bypass preliminary hearings and head straight to trial. Brooks has not been arrested, according to Assistant Hillsborough County Attorney Michael Valentine, who is handling the case. Valentine said direct indictments are typical when there has been a previous police investigation.

An arraignment has been scheduled for June 21.

Deering Town Administrator Craig Ohlson said the charge follows a “lengthy” investigation by the state police. He said Brooks, who faces as many as 31∕2 to 7 years in prison and a $4,000 fine if convicted, was fired from the department April 17. It’s unclear whether the termination was directly related to the wiretapping investigation.

Ohlson said the investigation began when Brooks approached him with the recording, sometime after it was made. Ohlson said he and former fire chief Andy Anderson eventually reported it to the town, which in turn reported it to the state police.

Valentine would not go into detail about the investigation because he said it has not yet been made public.

Ohlson acknowledged that there had been “issues” involving Brooks and Anderson before the investigation. He would not clarify what those were, other than to say they involved the “operations” of the department.

Several firefighters reached this week would not comment on Brooks or the investigation. Newly appointed Fire Chief Jesse Kelley also declined to comment, saying the matter occurred before his arrival May 1.

Brooks did not respond to a request for comment, but Ohlson said Brooks had been with the department for six to seven years.

State police Lt. Chris Wagner said he could not comment on the investigation while it is being prosecuted. But Ohlson said, to his knowledge, the investigation had been under way for some time.

The Deering Fire Department operates on an on-call basis, meaning its employees work part time and are compensated only for time spent responding to emergencies, Ohlson said.

Anderson stepped down in January after 12 years as chief and is now serving as deputy chief of the department; former assistant chief Jim Tramontozzi took over temporarily while the selectmen searched for a new head. Anderson said he resigned because he no longer had the time to devote to heading the department. He would not comment on Brooks or the alleged wiretapping.

Brooks went to the board of selectmen last year with criticisms of the fire department. At their July 23 meeting he said there was a discrepancy between his time sheets and paychecks from the previous year, according to minutes from the meeting. He also said there had been an officers meeting at the station during which a threat was made against him, and that he had disclosed a recording of the meeting to Ohlson the previous Monday, the minutes indicate.

He returned to the board this April to notify selectmen that employees in his department had been pressured to sign an endorsement of Tramontozzi for the permanent chief position.

“It is appalling that senior leadership stand over people in a department meeting and give even the impression that ‘if you don’t sign this, bad things are in store for you,’ ” he wrote in a letter submitted at their April 3 meeting.

The following week, Anderson reported to the board that, after questioning each of the 13 members who had signed the endorsement, he found no merit to the claims.

“These allegations are unfounded, and at least one reference in (Brooks’s) letter is fabricated,” he wrote in the report.

Anderson reported that he had asked each member three questions: Did they feel pressured to sign the letter? Did they believe there would be retaliation if they did not? Did they contact other officers in the department after doing so to voice concerns?

“The answers to all three questions were a unanimous ‘No’ from all thirteen members,” he wrote.

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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