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Records show Hernando Beach fire chiefs defrauded taxpayers of thousands

BROOKSVILLE — The three former chiefs of the defunct Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department, arrested in September, are collectively accused of defrauding the taxpayers of Hernando Beach, Aripeka and Forest Glenn of tens of thousands of dollars.

The department's annual revenue was just under $250,000.

David Freda is accused of engaging in fraud to obtain property valued at $123,070.14. For Travis Morris, the figure is $57,780.35, and for David Murdock, $44,706.49. Some of that fraud overlaps among the chiefs, according to sheriff's investigators.

The alleged fraud began in June 2014 and continued through the beginning of this year, according to documents filed with the clerk of the Circuit Court. The County Commission voted in February to have Hernando County Fire Rescue take over service in those communities, closing the volunteer department, which had been in place since 1975. The commission's decision was based on the department's failure to follow protocol — not responding to every call, not following its contract, which required audits, and not having a medical director.

Freda, Brooksville's fire chief at the time of his arrest, and Murdock, captain for the Brooksville Fire Department, were placed on administrative leave without pay by the city when the arrest warrants were issued Sept. 29.

Last week, interim City Manager Lyndon Bonner placed the two on administrative leave with pay, in keeping with city procedures. On Oct. 12, Freda was fired.

When asked why Freda and Murdock were treated differently, Bonner said Murdock is represented by a collective bargaining contract while Freda was not. A union contract sets out a course of action in disciplinary proceedings. Morris is employed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The investigation into misappropriations at the volunteer department, prompted by an anonymous tip, is ongoing.

Operations at the Brooksville Fire Department have been rocked by the loss of Freda and Murdock, prompting a recent discussion by the City Council, focused mainly on two memos the council received from Joe Keefer, president of Brooksville Professional Firefighters Local 4661.

"The members have safety concerns with the engine company only having members with two or less years experience on the apparatus without an officer,'' Keefer wrote. "Currently only one shift has a captain and a separate shift with a certified driver engineer acting out of grade.''

While the county's fire service has been "excellent with assisting our personnel with leadership and experience,'' Keefer wrote, city firefighters "are limited on their training and experience.''

Officials have reported that Freda brought several of the young volunteers from Hernando Beach to Brooksville, including Murdock. Some more experienced members of the Brooksville department have left during that time, with several pursuing age discrimination cases against the city and several others leaving for jobs in other jurisdictions.

A total of 27 employees have left since 2013, among them four reserve firefighters who were eliminated, three terminations, five retirements and 14 voluntary resignations.

Another former officer, Hillary Sanford, also pursued a legal challenge against the city and Freda when she was fired for following the procedures required under the medical director who had control over her license. While she won her case in arbitration, no settlement has yet been reached with the city.

Firefighters' confidence in the man chosen by Bonner as the interim chief, Stan Mettinger, was also questioned due to his view on several issues, including staff experience and hiring priorities, Keefer wrote.

In a followup email, Keefer noted that the union had performed a straw poll of its members and they unanimously "do not support the appointment of District Chief Stan Mettinger as the fire chief of the city of Brooksville.'' The email went on to say that the firefighters "strongly encourage the city to conduct a search for a fire chief outside the department. The Brooksville Professional Firefighters would like to be a part of the selection process for the fire chief.''

Mettinger is also seen by some city employees as a supporter of Freda. In 2014, he wrote a glowing seven-page letter about Freda to the Florida Fire and Emergency Services Foundation, praising him for his high level of customer service to Hernando Beach, his fiscal conservatism, his community service and his ability to juggle the job and caring for his young son.

Freda won recognition as the Florida State Volunteer Chief of the Year that year, based on letters from Mettinger and County Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes, a resident of Hernando Beach.

Bonner said this week that he will soon advertise for a permanent chief for the department. He is also in the process of interviewing firefighters for several other open positions.

One of the issues is that it is unknown how long the city's fire service might last.

The Fire Department is one service under close scrutiny by the City Council. In a rare, line-by-line examination of the city's budget this summer, council members determined that cost cutting will be needed in the future. Eliminating the city Fire Department is one of the options on the table.

At a council meeting earlier this month, council member Joe Bernardini expressed concern over the union's issues about employee safety at the Fire Department. Experience, he said, is key to life safety and property protection. Without experienced people, he said, "you can do something that can cost somebody their life.''

Contact Barbara Behrendt at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.

 
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