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Fire Chiefs Gone Wild: Ex-chiefs ran free-spending ‘frat house,’ investigators find

HERNANDO BEACH — Trading the county gasoline card for smokes and energy drinks, falsifying training documents, paying themselves salaries for volunteer jobs and boasting about setting a fire that torched prized artwork.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: After fire, art icon James Rosenquist faces bleak landscape (Sept. 30, 2017)

Those are some of the activities described to investigators that led to the September arrest of David Freda and two other former chiefs of the Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department on organized fraud charges.

Recently released documents from the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office investigation provide a peek inside what locals have long whispered about — inappropriate spending and a "frat house" atmosphere at the Hernando Beach fire station.

FIRE CHIEFS ARRESTED: Three former chiefs arrested in investigation of Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department (Sept. 30, 2017)

Even before Freda’s arrest, Hernando County shut down the department when volunteers failed to respond to emergency calls, file financial audits or hire a medical director to oversee their basic life support operations.

But misspending of the department’s $250,000 annual budget — including the salary payments — led to the arrest of former chiefs Freda, Travis Morris and David Murdock. Freda, who also served as Brooksville fire chief, was at the forefront of the questionable activity, investigators showed.

Freda’s attorney, Ellis Fraught, told the Tampa Bay Times that neither he nor his client would comment at this time. Attorneys for the other two men did not respond to requests for comment.

THE INVESTIGATION: Defunct volunteer fire department faces criminal investigation, lawsuit (March 1, 2017)

Investigators traced the trouble back to 2014, when the 28-year-old Hernando Beach fire chief asked the County Commission to give his volunteer department independence, loosening restrictions and controls by the county. The commission agreed.

"The department was run with virtually no checks and balances," said Sheriff’s Lieutenant Jeff Kraft, "after it was removed from the county overview and placed under the control of David Freda.’’

• • •

Misuse of county gas cards was rampant, investigators found.

Freda’s fuel purchases averaged $887 per month during a short audit period, according to the report, compared to $80 to $116 per month for top leaders at the Hernando County Fire Department.

The report found numerous discrepancies in the fuel records under Freda, Morris and Murdock’s leadership.

In one month, for instance, Freda reported that a fire truck received 77 gallons of fuel, but part of the purchase was for unleaded gas and part for diesel. Another vehicle fueled by Freda showed two draws six minutes apart, one for $53.18 and the other $47.47. Back-to-back fueling for the same vehicle appeared in the records "many times,’’ Kraft noted.

One explanation: Volunteer Brandon Smith told investigators Freda sent firefighters to the gas station to buy him cigarettes and Rock Star energy drinks, and "he would give them the department fuel card and tell them to fill up their personal vehicles as payment,’’ the report stated.

RELATED: Resignation of medical director leaves future of Hernando Beach fire service in doubt (Jan. 6, 2017)

The largest misappropriation detectives found was for payroll checks written from October 2014 through January 2017 on the Hernando Beach account, totalling $68,000. Freda got $29,653, Morris $25,711, and Murdock $12,637. The fire department’s contract with the county said volunteers were not to be paid.

Freda also purchased computers, power tools and a riding lawn mower that had to be confiscated from Freda’s house after his arrest.

"It should be noted that there is not near enough grass at the (Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department) to justify a lawn tractor,’’ wrote Detective Michael Junker.

When Heather Smith, an administrative assistant for Hernando Beach, went to purchase supplies about four years ago for the annual department fundraiser at Swamp Fest, the account was empty.

"She then contacted Chief Freda and confronted him on the charges she found, which consisted of bars, strip clubs, restaurants by his house,’’ according to the investigation.

Investigators said Freda often made ATM withdrawals from the Hernando Beach account. One was from the Icon Gentleman’s Club in Hudson, investigators reported, "which is a strip club that he frequents quite often.’’

• • •

Freda supplemented his income by teaching firefighter classes. But investigators found that, in many cases, he didn’t teach the classes to state standards or teach them at all.

Freda collected $39,385 between August 2014 and December 2016 for 30 classes. Of that, $32,195 was fraudulent, investigators said, and many of the checks were written on the Hernando Beach account by Freda to himself.

Investigators found incomplete training rosters, double payments for the same course, checks cashed for courses before they were taught, and timing conflicts — with firefighters supposedly in class while they were working shifts at other departments.

RELATED: County pulls plug on Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department (Feb. 15, 2017)

Volunteer firefighter Tim Fox thought Freda was a good trainer. After he talked to investigators, however, Fox checked the statewide database and found he’d earned a "Codes and Standards" certification.

Freda was listed as the instructor, the completion date was August 2016, and Fox supposedly got 94 percent as a grade.

The problem: Fox never took the class.

Jordyn Devries, a volunteer who also dated Freda, told an investigator she took firefighter training from him, but sometimes Freda said he was too hung-over to teach. She said she never completed the training, but Freda signed off on her skill set and that of others who never got the appropriate instruction.

Another witness said Freda purchased documentation that made it appear firefighters had received their "first responder" training, even if they hadn’t.

Investigators noted: "This is the first and most important training to receive to begin a career as a firefighter."

• • •

Misspent funds weren’t the only bad choices witnessed reported.

Volunteer Brandon Smith "referred to the HBVFD as a ‘boys club’ or ‘frat house,’" wrote Detective Junker.

Smith said that once Freda took him in the chief’s truck to the location of a house near Hernando Beach that burned down, Freda said, "because he and Murdock and another firefighter got bored at the fire house one night and took some shop rags and used them to set some brush on fire and then left to wait for a call to come in.’’

The 2009 fire destroyed the home, studio and more than $1 million worth of art of internationally-known artist James Rosenquist.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: After fire, art icon James Rosenquist faces bleak landscape (Sept. 30, 2017)

Smith said he thought Freda was just bragging.

But a few months later, the investigator wrote: "David Murdock also told Brandon about the fire in the same manner as Freda did. Brandon feels that both were telling the truth.’’

Law enforcement officials from the state Department of Agriculture found the fire suspicious but later closed the case. They did not respond to questions from the Times about whether they were reopening it.

Smith offered more to investigators, including his recollection of being in Freda’s chief’s vehicle and "driving lights and siren from Hernando County to Pinellas County just to go to dinner.’’ He told them Freda had no personal vehicle and "would also always use county gas and vehicles for his own personal gain.’’

Ross Lerohl volunteered at the department in 2014 and told investigators his first few weeks seemed normal and then "things became weird,’’ saying Freda showed up at the station early in the morning "drunk and with loose women.’’

• • •

In February 2016, six years after he became a paid firefighter in Brooksville, the city named Freda its fire chief.

City manager Jennene Norman-Vacha told Freda that he could no longer be chief in Hernando Beach, the report said. Months later, as questions swirled around the volunteer department, she assured the City Council that Freda had nothing to do with Hernando Beach.

Only that wasn’t true, investigators found.

Not only was he paying himself a Hernando Beach salary and teaching fees, they said, he used Hernando Beach money to take college classes he needed to fully qualify as the Brooksville chief.

Even as chief, volunteer Devries told investigators, Freda spent most of his time in Hernando Beach "and was practically running the HBVFD.’’

Investigators also concluded that Freda attended conferences as the Brooksville chief, but paid for them with Hernando Beach funds.

Devries told them she once heard him boasting that he got "the good room with the beach-front views.’’

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

   
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