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  1. Hernando

State attorney stands by plea deal with former chiefs of Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department

BROOKSVILLE — Minutes after the judge's final ruling on the former chiefs of the Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department, assistant state attorney Mark Simpson reflected on what has become a controversial outcome.

"Obviously, some people disagree with me that justice has been done,'' Simpson said last week from outside Fifth Judicial Circuit Court Judge Stephen Toner's courtroom, "but they have no facts, and they don't have the larger picture.''

The saga of former chiefs David Freda, David Murdock and Travis Morris lasted more than five years and included felony charges of organized fraud.

But none of them was convicted.

They agreed to plea deals drawn up by Simpson, requiring Freda to pay restitution to the county and all of them to reimburse the Sheriff's Office for its investigation.

Jodie Pillarella, an administrator for the Next Door Hernando Beach social media site, called the Freda deal outrageous.

"The broad scope of criminal activities over an extended period by HBVFD chiefs Freda, Morris and Murdock, deserved prison time,'' she wrote. "This is a miscarriage of justice from shoddy work done by the state attorney who failed to properly prosecute this case. This slam-dunk case cried out for extended prison time and they dropped the ball.''

Hernando County officials closed the fire department and voided the volunteers' firefighting contracts in 2017 for not responding to calls, failing to do required audits and not using a medical director's services, as required.

The criminal charges against the three former chiefs focused on their individual misbehavior. Witnesses told sheriff's investigators about on-duty alcohol use, sex in the station and the rampant misspending of monies collected from residents of Hernando Beach, Aripeka and Forest Glenn.

Officials focused on the monetary issues as they built their case and their deal.

Freda, 33, received five years of probation and must pay approximately $49,000 in restitution for the money he misspent and another $14,000 to the Sheriff's Office.

Neither Murdock, 31, or Morris, 41, received probation or restitution. Each had their charges dropped under a pre-trial intervention deal and must pay $14,000 toward the cost of the investigation.

Simpson has been prosecuting white collar crimes for 28 years in the Fifth Judicial Circuit of Florida, which includes Hernando County. He said he has seen what it takes for serious cases to end in more serious punishments.

"We're dealing here with a non-violent offense, basically a financial crime,'' he said, and none of the defendants had a criminal history. "This is a disposition which is not at all unusual."

Simpson said he felt relief that the long case was done. He also acknowledged that the Freda ruling on April 10 outraged residents impacted by the chiefs' behavior, who blasted Simpson in social media posts and in phone calls.

One asked why there were no charges on the rumors that Freda had sex with underage woman at the station. Simpson said that if residents have names and details, they should pass them along to the Sheriff's Office.

Others said that Freda and his fellow chiefs got away with stealing from them. Some demanded jail time for the chiefs while others wanted to know why residents of the beach communities who paid the fire fees weren't considered victims of the crime who should be repaid.

And some revisited witness statements made by fire department workers who said Freda and Murdock boasted that they set the brush fire in 2009 that ultimately burned down the home and studio of iconic artist James Rosenquist in Aripeka.

"You can't prove that,'' Simpson said.

The Sheriff's Office didn't question Freda and Murdock about the fire because their attorneys wouldn't allow it, Sheriff Al Nienhuis said, and the witnesses had axes to grind against the chiefs. There was little physical evidence when the fire happened, Nienhuis said, although it was considered suspicious at the time.

Simpson said he helped Sheriff's Office detectives hone in on the issues to be investigated.

His plea offers were based on a meticulous examination of the evidence, he said. Several months ago, he said he spent hours going through documents about the chiefs' spending habits, detailing dollar-for-dollar what he could prove was misspent "without a shadow of a doubt.''

One difficult aspect of proving the fraud charges involved the salaries that detectives said the volunteer chiefs paid themselves, which was strictly prohibited in their contract. But the contract also said the chiefs could use the department's money to pay "administrative fees," which could have been construed as salaries.

Arguing the meaning of contractual terms would be a tough sell before a jury, Simpson said.

In Freda's case, for example, Simpson said he included in his restitution all the salary money he received after he left the Hernando Beach department and became the full-time paid fire chief for Brooksville. That seemed clear-cut.

Simpson included numerous other costs for Freda to repay, including educational expenses he was reimbursed for after he left Hernando Beach and thousands of dollars paid by firefighters seeking training from Freda, some of whom he never trained.

Of the total $42,000 the chiefs must pay to the Sheriff's Office, $15,563.99 goes directly to the Forest Glenn community.

Nienhuis said that Forest Glenn paid separately for its fire service, rather than having the annual assessment included in their property taxes. According to county documents, that arrangement was approved by the County Commission in 2015.

Nienhuis said he asked for that money to come out of Freda's restitution and not the funds reimbursing his department. But like the overall outcome of the cases, Nienhuis said, his people can make suggestions, but do not always support the outcome.

Simpson said some people who have been critical of the deal do not understand all the details. He said that Charles Greenwell, a Hernando Beach resident and retired lawyer, argued that the residents — not the County Commission — were the victims.

"You are not the victim,'' Simpson said he explained. There would have to be process to decide who paid into the fire department and how the restitution would be paid back to each, he said, which would be nearly impossible.

Deputy county attorney Jon Jouben said he believes the restitution money should be spent in Hernando Beach, because that's where the money was raised.

"That's a great idea to take it and have that go back to the area,'' Simpson said.

Simpson said the plea arrangement was "well thought out" and involved his office and Nienhuis' office. He understands that not everyone will support the outcome.

"We deal with victims all the time, but I don't have the luxury of letting it become personal for me,'' Simpson said. "I can see that they feel very passionate and emotional, but I cannot be emotional or I cannot do the job of a prosecutor.''

Capt. Jeff Kraft, who lead the investigation for the Sheriff's Office, said this was one of the most detailed inquiries he has ever worked on, but the outcome was not satisfying.

"You can't slam the state attorney,'' he said, "but I would have liked more.''

Contact Barbara Behrendt at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

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