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Ex-Hernando Beach volunteer fire chief escapes prison in plea deal

David Freda, 33, a former Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department chief, will serve no time in prison after pleading no contest to grand theft charges on Wednesday. The photo on the left is from when the Hernando County Commission named him Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year in 2014. The photo on the right is from a 2018 arrest on a charge of battery in Pasco County. The charge was later dropped. [Times files]
Published Apr. 10

BROOKSVILLE — A former Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department chief pleaded no contest on Wednesday to charges that he stole tens of thousands in taxpayer dollars.

David Freda, who was accused of spending the fire department's budget on computers, power tools and visits to a strip club, will not go to prison. He walked out of a courtroom without even receiving a criminal conviction.

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Circuit Judge Stephen Toner withheld adjudication. The 33-year-old Freda was sentenced to five years probation. He'll pay nearly $49,000 in restitution to the public and more than $14,000 to the Hernando County Sheriff's Office to cover the cost of investigating his crimes.

Freda had faced a first-degree felony charge of organized fraud before prosecutors changed it to second-degree grand theft in the plea deal. That charge still could have carried up to 15 years in prison if Freda were found guilty. But Assistant State Attorney Mark Simpson said the outcome was a logical one, even if it may fail to satisfy the Hernando Beach residents appalled by Freda's alleged behavior.

"That's the world I live in," said the prosecutor, who specializes in white-collar crime. "When you're talking about nonviolent first-time offenders, that's not unusual. It's not unusual at all.

"Especially in this particular case — we're going to get back all of what we asked in restitution."

Simpson said he believes Freda's parents will help their son pay restitution.

In 2017, Freda and two other volunteer chiefs, Travis Morris and David Murdock, were arrested on allegations that they misappropriated public funds. The volunteer fire chiefs even paid themselves, investigators said. The allegations came after locals had long complained about the "frat house" atmosphere at the Hernando Beach fire station.

As the judge readied to hear the plea agreement, he had Simpson give the specifics of what the prosecution ultimately alleged Freda took: about $10,000 in salary over three years, $26,000 for firefighting courses he never actually taught, $6,000 in online university class tuition paid out of the fire department's fund, $4,000 in per diem pay that he charged to the department even though he was also reimbursed by Federal Emergency Management Agency, and three cash withdrawals totaling $1,400.

That money will go in a lump sum payment to the Hernando County Commission, Simpson said. The County Commission will decide whether to use it to fund Hernando County Fire Rescue, which took over firefighting responsibility for the Hernando Beach area when the volunteer fire department was closed, or to put it in the county's general fund.

In addition to those payments, Freda also owes $14,000 to the Sheriff's Office, one-third of what the agency said it cost to investigate Freda and the other ex-chiefs. A detective on the case said in court Wednesday that the Sheriff's Office spent nearly $23,000 on 743 hours of investigation, plus another $19,000 to contract an outside forensic accountant.

"We're satisfied," with the outcome, said Freda's defense attorney, Ellis Faught.

Freda also served as chief of the Brooksville Fire Department but was fired after his arrest. He was arrested in November 2018 on a charge of domestic battery in Pasco County, but records show it was later dropped.

Freda did not apologize or make any statements to the judge or courtroom on Wednesday. He declined to comment to the Tampa Bay Times.

His co-defendants are still set to go on trial April 29. Simpson, however, alluded in court that Murdock may also strike a plea deal that would involve a pre-trial intervention program.

Contact Jack Evans at jevans@tampabay.com. Follow @JackHEvans.

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