HERNANDO BEACH — Hernando County commissioners shut down the Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department on Valentine's Day 2017. They did so for good reason.
The volunteers were failing to respond to 911 calls. They'd ignored a state requirement to hire a medical director. For more than two years, they never produced a financial audit to show how they were spending taxpayer dollars. They'd become infamous for their bad behavior.
Yet even then, Commissioner Wayne Dukes, who represented Hernando Beach and had fire service experience in the military, stood by the volunteers.
After his fellow commissioners outvoted him and closed the department, Dukes blamed poor county oversight for the failure.
"We all know looking back that there was some bad leadership," he said, adding "we let it happen.''
But it was Dukes himself who knew best the fire department's failures and looked the other way, according to local officials, county records, comments made at public meetings and eventually a Hernando County Sheriff's Office investigation that resulted in felony fraud charges against three department chiefs.
The record shows that Dukes:
• Encouraged a 62 percent increase in the fire department's budget, allowing then-chief David Freda to raise money he later would use illicitly for his own gain.
• Pushed fellow commissioners to free the department from county financial oversight even after proof of Freda's lack of personal and fiscal responsibility.
• Knew about and failed to hold volunteers accountable for the misuse of county gasoline cards and county vehicles, the failure to hire a medical director, the poor handling of a citizen mauled by the department's dog, sex and drinking in the station, and the failure to respond to calls.
• Wanted to forgive the department's missing financial audits rather than demand the chiefs show how they spent their $250,000 annual budget.
• Pushed to delay a decision about closing the department even after he was presented evidence the volunteers weren't volunteers at all, but were paying themselves.
The fraud charges filed last year against former Hernando Beach chiefs Freda, Travis Morris and David Murdock are working their way through the courts.
Dukes is seeking reelection to his third term.
He declined to give a detailed interview to the Tampa Bay Times, saying he protected the volunteers because the county's paid departments wanted to take them over.
"I'm always for the underdog,'' Dukes said, "and that's not against the law.''
County commissioners had reason to question Freda's leadership when he came to them as a young chief in 2013, asking for a 62 percent increase in the fire fees charged to residents of Hernando Beach, Forest Glenn and Aripeka. He wanted more money for training, fuel and a new fire truck.
Freda had made news two years earlier when the state suspended his driver's license after a half dozen speeding citations, a careless driving charge and a ticket for failing to prove he had insurance. He wasn't allowed to drive the Hernando Beach fire truck or an ambulance for Brooksville, where he worked as a paid firefighter.
But Dukes convinced commissioners to approve the increase.
Freda's name came up again that year in a routine audit by the county Clerk of the Circuit Court. He was spending more on vehicle fuel in the tiny Hernando Beach district than the top fire officials who oversaw service for the entire county.
The county administrator called Freda in and demanded documentation. The matter made front-page news, but Freda was not disciplined.
Yet in 2014, Dukes urged his fellow commissioners to give the 28-year-old chief independence from county budgeting and bookkeeping as a way to reduce costs.
"We just give them the money?'' then-commissioner Diane Rowden asked at the March 14 meeting.
"David has done some outstanding work down there,'' Dukes said. "He's brought a new breath of fresh air to that department, and I appreciate it.''
Commissioners approved the independence and codified it in a contract, which said that volunteers had to "promptly respond to all 911 calls from Hernando Beach.'' They also had to hire a medical director and submit annual financial audits to the county.
Another stipulation seemed self-evident: "The parties agree that no compensation will be paid by the department for the services for firefighters, agents or other volunteers.''
Within two years, the Hernando Beach volunteers had failed all four requirements.
A fraud investigator later blamed the financial abuses on the independence so sought after by Freda and pushed by Dukes.
"The department was run with virtually no checks and balances after it was removed from the county overview and placed under the control of David Freda,'' wrote Sheriff's Detective Jeffrey Kraft.
Days after the County Commission gave the Hernando Beach volunteers their independence, the Times got an anonymous tip that Freda was having volunteers buy him beer and cigarettes, returning the favor by letting them fuel up their private vehicles with the county gas card — possibly explaining overages in the earlier audit.
The email included photos of a young man drinking beer, allegedly in the station.
Dukes told a local newspaper that based on a lack of evidence, the county would not conduct an investigation.
Fraud investigators last year talked to the tipster and his wife, who said Dukes knew about the illicit activities but "nothing was ever done.''
In fact, two months after the email uproar, Dukes sent a two-page letter to the Florida Fire and Emergency Foundation, listing 10 ways Freda excelled as chief, helping him become the 2014 Florida Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year.
Freda stood in his dress uniform before the County Commission as Dukes read a proclamation touting his leadership, integrity and work to "relentlessly ... reduce expenses." Then Dukes stood beside Freda, mugging for official photos.
Hernando Beach volunteers didn't have a medical director for two years, Hernando County Fire Chief Scott Hechler told investigators last year.
Physician Michael LoGuidice, also the county's fire medical director, had served in Hernando Beach, but quit in October 2014. No replacement was hired.
"I had concerns about the care as well as the level of service that was provided to the residents of Hernando Beach,'' LoGuidice told the Times last year. "These concerns covered competence of the volunteers, volunteers consuming alcohol while on duty, and the poor leadership provided by Chief Freda in making the necessary changes to provide timely quality medical care to the residents of Hernando Beach.
"I terminated my agreement when my concerns, as well as the lack of transparency, were ignored by Chief Freda and County Commissioner Wayne Dukes.
"I feel bad for the residents of Hernando Beach because their county commissioner has failed to act on several occasions to ensure that timely quality medical care was provided to the residents."
Dukes also diverted questions about how well the department cared for its district.
On Thanksgiving in 2015, a Hernando Beach woman took food to the station for volunteers and was mauled by the department's pitbull-mix named Sam. Instead of calling an ambulance, firefighters let the woman's husband take her to a local hospital that was not equipped to treat her severe facial wounds.
A local resident shared the incident at a County Commission meeting, raising questions about the department's professionalism, training and judgment. Commissioners asked their staff to poll the community on whether it was time to close the department.
Dukes wasn't at the meeting, but when he returned, he dismissed the resident's concerns. Rather than a poll, Dukes said, he would talk to community leaders "and whatever way they feel, we'll bring that back to the board."
But he never did.
Several months later, the Brooksville Fire Department named Freda its paid chief. That should have ended his ties with Hernando Beach, but Freda still drove his Hernando Beach vehicle on city business.
"All of the commissioners had issues with this except for Commissioner Dukes," Hechler said.
"Most anything that dealt with Hernando Beach and David Freda in either capacity, at some point, Commissioner Dukes would be in on it," Hechler told the Times. "This happened over and over.''
Equally troubling were the fire department's failures to respond to every 911 call.
County fire officials documented two instances, including one in July and one in October of 2016, when Hernando Beach volunteers didn't show up to what could have been life-threatening emergencies.
Unable to depend on the volunteers, Hernando County Fire and Rescue began rolling trucks to all Hernando Beach calls, doubling up coverage to ensure the community's safety.
Public records and statements by county employees also show that Dukes was aware of problems the county had obtaining audits from the Hernando Beach department. The audits were the county's chief tool to oversee how the volunteers spent their money.
The first full-year audit was due at the end of 2015. For months, county budget staff tried unsuccessfully to get the numbers, and top county officials knew it.
Dukes sat in on several meetings about the missing audits, county budget management analyst Michelle Bishop later told sheriff's investigators.
Hechler told them a similar story. When he realized Freda was dodging the audits, Hechler said, he contacted the county administrator, "who in turn reported it to the BOCC (Board of County Commissioners), specifically Mr. Dukes since the HBVFD fell within his district."
Hechler also offered this: "Commissioner Dukes wanted to forgive and not require the HBVFD to complete the required audits for 2014 and 2015 and just wanted to move forward with the 2016 audit.''
At their meeting on Dec. 6, 2016 — after more than two years with no idea how the Hernando Beach fire department spent its money — commissioners discussed the matter publicly.
Sean Moulton, head of the county firefighters union, stepped up to the microphone. He told commissioners he was troubled by information he had obtained about the Hernando Beach department.
"I wouldn't even say they're a true volunteer fire department,'' Moulton said, holding a 2016 budget document detailing tens of thousands of dollars in "administrative fees" paid to chiefs.
"They're paying themselves,'' he said.
Outraged, Dukes called Moulton's comments inappropriate, abruptly got up and walked out of the meeting.
At the heart of the fraud charges later pressed against the Hernando Beach fire chiefs were salaries investigators said they paid themselves for volunteer positions. They totalled $68,000 from October 2014 through January 2017.
After Dukes returned to the meeting, former county fire chief Mike Nickerson spoke.
"This is not the first time that this contract has been in default," Nickerson said. "It's basically been in default continuously since its inception.''
Then he turned to Dukes.
"I have nothing personal against Commissioner Dukes. I know him to be a good man,'' Nickerson said. "But he mentioned his long-standing support for the Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department.
"I suggest that he has basically supported them so much that he has lost his objectivity, because many times these issues were going to come to previous boards' attention, and it was derailed at the request of Commissioner Dukes, basically buried under the dirt, spread underneath the rug.''
The county staff had come to the meeting prepared to recommend canceling the volunteers' contract.
Instead, Dukes urged his fellow commissioners to delay the decision so two newly elected members could learn more about the situation.
The next month, they all received an email from Don Bisson, a career firefighter, who worked briefly at the volunteer department.
Bisson called Hernando Beach "the worst run fire department I have ever seen."
The department gave Bisson a pager and a key to the station before even checking his credentials, he wrote. He saw firefighters drinking beer in the station, and once "walked into the day room, and a firefighter and a girl were engaging in sex.
"If the residents are thinking they are getting any form of fire/EMS service, they are deceiving themselves.''
Before the final vote in February 2017, new Commissioner Steve Champion said he understood that Dukes supported the Hernando Beach department, but said too much had gone wrong.
"You can't responsibly sit up here and vote to keep that with everything that's going on,'' Champion said. "We have to terminate the agreement with the volunteer fire department.''
Commissioners approved the termination, 3-1. Dukes cast the lone dissenting vote.
Eight months later, Freda was arrested at gunpoint in a convenience store parking lot and charged with organized fraud over $50,000.
Dukes said last month that he had nothing more to say on the issue.
"I didn't do anything wrong,'' Dukes said. "I'm not going to defend myself.''
Contact Barbara Behrendt at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.