BROOKSVILLE — Three former chiefs of the defunct Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department, including current Brooksville Chief David Freda, were arrested Friday, each was charged with one count of organized fraud.
The charges stem from a seven-month Hernando County Sheriff's Office investigation of misappropriation of public funds.
Freda, 31, was picked up during a traffic stop late Friday at a 7-Eleven store at County Line Road and U.S. 19. Earlier in the day, interim City Manager Lyndon Bonner, who had been made aware of the warrant out for the chief's arrest, placed Freda on unpaid administrative leave.
Bonner did the same with Brooksville fire Capt. David Murdock, 29, who was arrested at his other job, at Bayfront Health Dade City.
Travis Morris, 39, was the first arrested, on Friday morning. He was working at the county's Emergency Operations Center when he was taken into custody. He is an employee of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Both Freda and Murdock were booked into the Pasco County jail. Morris was booked at the Hernando County Detention Center.
Freda and Murdock each face a charge of organized fraud over $50,000, a first-degree felony, and bail was set at $25,000 for each. Morris faces a charge of organized fraud over $20,000, a second-degree felony, and his bail was set at $15,000.
According to a Sheriff's Office news release, detectives with the sheriff's Economic Crimes Unit have been working closely with members of State Attorney Brad King's office on the investigation.
Freda, Murdock and Morris had served at various times in recent years as chief of the volunteer department in Hernando Beach. After Bonner placed the city employees on unpaid leave, he visited with other employees at the Fire Department to tell them what had happened and to choose interim leadership for the department.
In his memo to Freda and Murdock, copied to City Council members, Bonner said the reason for their leave was their pending arrests and that they should immediately return to the city any city equipment, including electronic devices and keys.
Hernando County sheriff's investigators have been looking into allegations that the volunteer fire department was misspending dollars it collected from the property owners of Hernando Beach, Aripeka and Forest Glenn, who were served by the department until the county took over fire service there earlier this year. The criminal investigation was sparked by a complaint from a Hernando Beach homeowner who asked to remain anonymous.
"I've been alerted to activity regarding the writing and cashing of checks for personal interests," the homeowner wrote in the original complaint. "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 noted that there had been talk about the department's monthly gasoline bill running in excess of $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 Freda being verbally disciplined 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 the chiefs and others received thousands of dollars in monetary compensation for their volunteer jobs.
Other concerns by the tipster included allegations that one of the department's former chiefs 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 noted that the county had an auditor working on the case and that the county administrator, county legal staff and the county fire chief all knew that the department was not meeting its contractual requirements. County fire officials, including Chief Scott Hechler, had been writing critical memos for several months about procedural breaches by the volunteers.
Criticism of the department came from other quarters as well. An email delivered to commissioners earlier this year by a former volunteer with the department detailed a series of issues he said he discovered. Formerly a career firefighter, Don Bisson called the Fire Department "the worst run fire department I have ever seen."
"If the residents are thinking they are getting any form of fire/EMS service, they are deceiving themselves. It is unprofessional to say the least,'' Bisson wrote. "The county should take over the coverage.''
He detailed his concerns about being given a key and a pager before the department checked his credentials, and walking in on firefighters drinking beer. He reported that once, "I walked into the day room and a firefighter and a girl were engaging in sex. I left.''
After questions were raised about the volunteer department not following procedures, missing a couple of fire responses and its lack of a required medical director and failure to file regular audits as required by the county, the County Commission voted in mid February to take over the department.
The following day, the volunteers' acting chief, Dan Chichester, closed the department, which had been operating since 1975, and Hernando County Fire Rescue took over.
In connection with the investigation, the Sheriff's Office served a search warrant to collect materials, including some that were stored at the volunteers' station on Shoal Line Boulevard.
Because of the ongoing nature of the investigation, sheriff's officials continue to seek information from the public about the case. They are also not releasing any other information about the investigation at this time.
Contact Barbara Behrendt at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.