Former Phoenix firefighter sentencing delayed
Rhine was charged for embezzling $1.5 million in grants
The sentencing of a former Hollidaysburg firefighter was postponed Monday for the fourth time after the judge overseeing the case was informed the defense attorney was in COVID-19 quarantine.
Benjamin Allen Rhine, 49, was charged last year with embezzling more than $1.5 million from a federal grant to be used to recruit new volunteers for 32 fire departments in Blair and Bedford counties.
The $5 million grant was approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 2013.
Rhine, a firefighter with the Phoenix Fire Department in Hollidaysburg, was appointed as the administrator of the grant while another longtime member of the department, Anthony Dibona, 58, was named the assistant administrator.
Both were to be paid from the grant, but they both ended up being charged criminally with taking money from the grant in excess of their salaries.
They were also charged with failing to pay income taxes on the money they received.
Dibona earlier this year was sentenced by the U.S. District Judge Kim R. Gibson in Johnstown to a day in custody and a period of probation.
Rhine was scheduled to be sentenced by Gibson at 11 a.m. Monday, but at 9:30 a.m. the judge’s office was made aware that Rhine’s Altoona attorney, Michael B. Cohen, was in quarantine and would not be able to attend the hearing.
For over a year the federal court in Johnstown has held hearings and sentencings using the Zoom platform.
However, Rhine and his defense attorney have requested an in-court hearing and in Cohen’s request for another continuance, it was reiterated that “the defendant and defendant’s attorney are desirous of an in-person sentencing hearing.”
The hearing was postponed.
The sentencing date, according to an order by Judge Gibson on Monday, has now been set for Oct. 18.
The stakes are much higher for Rhine than they were for Dibona.
In a sentencing memorandum filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Arnold P. Bernard, Jr., it states that “Mr. Rhine’s actions robbed the Blair/Bedford County area of much-needed federal funding intended to attract new members to the declining roster of local volunteer fire companies and damaged the reputation of volunteer firefighters everywhere.”
“He then knowingly omitted all of the money he received from the grant — legitimately and illegitimately — from his income tax returns for the relevant tax years,” the Government’s sentencing memo stated.
The federal government is seeking a prison sentence of between 46 and 57 months for Rhine.
It contends Rhine violated the trust of the 32 fire departments comprising the Allegheny Mountains Firefighter’s Initiative and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The defense in its memo on sentencing is seeking a lesser prison sentence — one year of incarceration to be followed by a lengthy period of parole.
Cohen pointed out that a day after Rhine was questioned by the IRS in 2016 about “unusual activity” in his financial accounts, he called his lawyer and indicated he wanted to disclose his criminal activity.
Rhine, who has no prior criminal record, joined the Phoenix Fire Department in 1988 and ascended through the ranks, serving as a lieutenant, a captain, assistant chief, deputy chief and chief.
Factoring in his age, his family responsibilities, “a history of good works with the fire department,” and his cooperation with law enforcement, the defense is asking the judge to depart downward from the sentencing guidelines of 46-57 months, according to the Cohen memo to Judge Gibson.
Court filings also reveal a letter from Jerry Brant, a volunteer firefighter of
52 years with the Hope Fire Company of Northern Cambria, explaining the history of the grant that was initially requested by the Phoenix Fire department, and the serious implications caused by the embezzlements Rhine and Dibona.
Brant is co-owner of Decoplan Associates, a firm that writes grant applications focusing on aid to fire companies.
His firm, he explained to Judge Gibson, wrote the application for the funds that eventually led to the formation of the Allegheny Mountains Firefighters Initiative.
The Phoenix Fire Company wanted a grant to help area volunteer companies recruit and maintain their firefighters, he stated in the letter.
“Departments have been experiencing declines in membership for the past four decades,” he explained.
Decoplan held individual and regional meetings with area fire officials and it was eventually decided that the Firefighters Initiative would seek money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to recruit 300 new volunteers and increase training for existing firefighters.
He reported that 32 fire departments joined the Initiative that would launch an “aggressive marketing campaign” and provide financial assistance for gear, gift cards and educational benefits to the new recruits.
The grant was awarded in April 2013.
In September 2013, Brant and his Decoplan partner, Timothy Longwill, met with Phoenix Chief Dibona and recommended a firm that would perform periodic audits of grant expenditures.
The Decoplan officials also recommended a five-member board representing the 32 departments be appointed to oversee the program.
Brant stated that Debona replied, “This is a Phoenix grant and Phoenix will run everything.”
On Oct. 7, 2013, Phoenix terminated its contract with Decoplan.
Brant went on to explain that the grant was successful in its efforts to recruit 300 new firefighters.
But, he stated, the success was “due to the tireless efforts of John Kane,” who handled the Initiative’s marketing campaign.
Referring to the embezzlements, he stated, “The theft of these funds has given the Phoenix Fire Department and the entire area firefighting community a black eye.”
He stated area departments rely on community support and donations.
“Because of Mr. Rhine’s criminal activities, all of us in the fire service now must work a little longer and harder to gain our community’s trust,” his statement concluded.