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Investigation of Hernando Beach fire department focuses on use of alcohol, expenditures

HERNANDO BEACH — Hernando County officials are investigating allegations that Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department Chief David Freda bought and consumed beer with firefighters on duty and spent fire account money to buy alcohol in Spring Hill, Daytona Beach and Maryland.

The anonymous complaint also alleged Freda made his firefighters buy him beer and cigarettes and paid them back by allowing them to use his county gas card to fill their personal vehicles.

The allegations come as the county prepares to grant the department its independence.

An anonymous tipster, using the name "residents for a county-controlled fire station for Hernando Beach," sent an email to county commissioners and the Times, and it included two pictures of an unidentified man with a bottle of beer, allegedly taken at the fire station.

"This chief is out of control and should have no business running a fire department," the tipster wrote.

County officials were in a quandary when they got the complaint on June 12 because the county is in the process of allowing the department to operate independently of county oversight. The county still owns the fire station, but the County Commission earlier this month approved a lease to the volunteer fire department, effective July 1.

After receiving the email, the county's risk manager, Cristi Charlow, sent Freda a copy and reminded him that "alcohol is prohibited on county property, unless it's a special event approved by the Board of County Commissioners." Charlow asked Freda to respond to the allegations.

Because he is charged with overseeing taxpayer money, Clerk of the Circuit Court Don Barbee also agreed to look into the possible misuse of county gas cards. It was a natural followup of an audit done by his office late last year of the county fleet's gas card usage. Freda's usage was questioned at the time because it exceeded that of the two county fire rescue chiefs and the assistant chief combined.

In an email dated Friday, Freda responded to the complaint, saying it was clearly vindictive and possibly the work of a disgruntled former volunteer who left for disciplinary reasons.

He did not respond directly to the question of whether he bought or consumed beer at the station, but did say that he knows that alcohol at the station is against department policy, and he notes that he has disciplined people for previous violations and would again in the future. Freda also said he would investigate the photos.

"Funds of the organization have been properly expended with the approval of the governing board of the HBVFD," he wrote.

County Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes said Monday that he has spoken briefly with Freda but was not at liberty to say what they discussed. He did say that he, Freda, County Administrator Len Sossamon and the county's new public safety director, Scott Hechler, will meet in the coming days to further discuss the allegations.

Investigation of Hernando Beach fire department focuses on use of alcohol, expenditures 06/23/14 [Last modified: Monday, June 23, 2014 7:26pm]
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