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Defunct volunteer fire department faces criminal investigation, lawsuit

Published Mar. 1, 2017

BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County Sheriff's Office has opened a criminal investigation into allegations of fraudulent spending by the Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department. The defunct department also is facing a lawsuit brought by a Hernando Beach resident who was mauled by the department's dog in late 2015.

Those developments come in the wake of action by the Hernando County Commission on Feb. 14 to terminate its contract with the volunteers. A day later, the volunteer chief handed over the keys to the station, and Hernando County Fire Rescue took over emergency medical and fire services in the coastal community.

The criminal investigation was sparked by a complaint from a Hernando Beach homeowner who asked to remain anonymous. The homeowner states in the complaint to the Sheriff's Office that there has been a "high degree of speculation" that the department's various chiefs and support personnel have been misspending money collected from the district's property owners.

"I've been alerted to activity regarding the writing and cashing of checks for personal interests," the homeowner wrote. "I've been told that a former chief bought and paid for travel expenses for him and his girlfriend to attend an international chief's convention overseas."

In addition, the tipster notes there has been talk about the department's monthly gasoline bill being over $2,000 and speculation that the chief was trading gas for beer and cigarettes with the volunteers. That, along with an allegation and pictures of volunteers drinking in the firehouse, resulted in former Chief David Freda, now the Brooksville Fire Department chief, being called on the carpet by Hernando County Administrator Len Sossamon several years ago.

"None of these expenditures are permitted under the contract with the county and/or state regulations," the complainant wrote.

Budget documents also indicate that chiefs and others received thousands of dollars in monetary compensation for their volunteer jobs.

Other concerns by the tipster include allegations that a former chief remodeled his home using tax dollars and that budgets, records of expenditures, personnel records, logs of who was on duty and other materials had never been compiled, and "there is speculation of a county commissioner sweeping it under the rug."

The tipster notes that the county has had an auditor working on the case and that the county administrator, county legal staff and the county fire chief all know that the department was not meeting its contractual requirements.

"All the persons in question have resigned but should be held accountable. Fraud is fraud regardless if they are no longer in the organization," the complainant wrote. "Illegal spending of taxpayers' dollars is inappropriate, and if the investigation reveals this, people need to be held accountable under the law."

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The volunteer department collected approximately $250,000 annually from Hernando Beach residents.

In connection with the case, the Sheriff's Office already has served a search warrant to collect materials, including some that were stored at the station. The contents of the search warrant have been sealed by a judge and are not public. Other details of the inquiry are not available because they are protected as part of an ongoing investigation.

Since the investigation involves another public safety entity, sheriff's investigators will be especially vigilant to conduct a fair, unbiased and complete inquiry, said sheriff's spokeswoman Denise Moloney. The investigation is in its early stages, and Moloney said she did not know how long it might take to complete.

Two days after the County Commission canceled the volunteer department's contract, Hernando Beach resident Diane Martinez filed a lawsuit seeking damages for injuries she received when she visited the station the day before Thanksgiving in 2015. She had brought food to the volunteers, but was attacked by the station's dog, Sam, a brown and white pit bull mix, which was used as the station's "fire safety dog," according to the complaint.

The dog reportedly bit Martinez in the face, but volunteers allowed the victim's husband to transport her to Oak Hill Hospital rather than having a county ambulance take her to a Pasco County trauma center. The incident raised public speculation about whether the volunteers were trying to cover up what had happened. Later that day, once Oak Hill doctors saw the injury, they had a county ambulance take Martinez to the trauma center.

When a Hernando Beach resident questioned the County Commission about the handling of the incident, officials said it was the responsibility of the residents of Hernando Beach and not the county to hold their Fire Department accountable. That view changed recently when county staffers recommended canceling the contract because the volunteers had failed to respond to some 911 calls, failed to file required audits and breached fire and medical protocols, including not having a medical director.

Volunteer representatives could not be reached for comment, and Freda did not respond to a Times request for comment .

This week, commissioners took additional steps for formally having Hernando County Fire Rescue assume the duties of the former volunteer department and also tentatively set the new countywide fire fee for next fiscal year, which will also include Hernando Beach.

The new fee would be $194.70, plus a half-mill property tax, compared to the current flat fee in Hernando Beach of $107.36.

Fire fees for all county residents will be finalized during public budget hearings in September.