Blatant public corruption has once again culminated in the lightest of wrist slaps. This time the travesty is in Hernando County, where three fire chiefs engaged in what investigators described as organized fraud. They falsified documents and paid themselves $68,000 in unauthorized salaries. All three were allowed to cut deals that included no criminal conviction, reinforcing the perception that these types of financial crimes that cost taxpayers money and undermine the public trust in government aren't taken seriously.
The Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department was run like a frat house, according to reporting by the Tampa Bay Times' Barbara Behrendt. Drinking on the job. Failing to respond to 911 calls. Using county issued gas cards to buy cigarettes. One firefighter who worked there briefly walked in on a colleague having sex with a woman in the break room. "The worst run fire department I have ever seen," he said.
The most serious allegations centered on Chief David Freda. He was accused of collecting money for teaching public safety courses that he didn't teach, and paying himself $29,653 for what was supposed to be a volunteer job. He also used fire department funds to buy computers, power tools and a riding lawn mower, which were all confiscated from his home after his arrest.
Freda, 33, was charged with a first-degree felony but recently was allowed to plead no contest and received five years of probation. He is required to pay nearly $49,000 in restitution. If he successfully completes his probation, he won't be convicted of any crimes. It will be almost like they never happened.
Chiefs Travis Morris, 41, and David Murdock, 31, got off even lighter. They faced a charge of organized fraud and of paying themselves $25,711 and $12,637, respectively. The prosecutor allowed them to enter into a pre-trial intervention program. They, too, avoided formal conviction.
This wasn't an isolated indiscretion. It wasn't a bad decision made under duress. It wasn't a mistake or an accident. These were grown men in positions of trust and power who decided to dip into the public till over several years. The legal outcome has left many local residents feeling like the chiefs got away with it. No wonder.
Prosecuting public officials can be difficult and time consuming. Many defendants, including the ones in the Hernando Beach case, lack prior criminal records. And unlike other criminals, they often have the means to pay the money back — only after they get caught, of course. But public corruption shouldn't be met with a legal shrug. At the very least, the plea deals for these three men should have included convictions. If they didn't like that offer, they could have taken their chances at trial.
This case adds to the impression that public corruption pays. Break into a bank or sell a couple dime bags of cocaine, go to jail. Steal from taxpayers, walk free. That's not justice, nor is it a deterrent. Quite the opposite. It's a green light for every public official who lacks a moral compass to give it a shot.