St. Clair Fire Protection District board of directors President Kirby Banderman said the situation involving former Chief Eric Hinson’s misappropriation of district funds is “regrettable” but added that “everyone has to be accountable for their actions.”
Hinson, who also served as the fire district’s treasurer for many years, pleaded guilty on Wednesday to one felony count of fraud and five felony counts of tax evasion.
Hinson, 43, appeared before U.S. District Court Judge E. Richard Webber and entered his plea. His sentencing was set for May 2.
“In rural Missouri, volunteer fire personnel are the backbone of public safety when it comes to our homes and property,” U.S. Attorney Richard C. Callahan said in discussing the case. “Aside from our thanks, they deserve much more than this from a public official.”
Hinson’s maximum sentence would be 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 for the fraud charge. Each count of tax evasion carries a maximum penalty of five years and a fine of up to $100,000.
In determining the actual sentences, a judge is required to consider the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, which provide recommended sentencing ranges.
However, Jan Diltz, public information officer with the Eastern District of Missouri’s U.S. Attorney’s Office, told The Missourian this week that according to the federal sentencing guidelines, Hinson should face 33 to 41 months in prison.
“(That) is the suggested guideline range calculated using criminal history and other information,” she said, adding, that the sentencing judge determines the actual sentence.
On Jan. 9, Hinson was indicted on fraud and multiple tax evasion charges involving his alleged misuse of about $593,236 of district funds between January 2006 and September 2011. Last September, it was revealed that only Hinson was involved in the fire district investigation that was spearheaded by the U.S. District Attorney’s Office and the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation unit. Assistant U.S. Attorney Hal Goldsmith is handling the case.
Additionally, Hinson filed false tax returns for the years 2006 through 2010, leaving total additional taxes due of $132,383, a press release stated.
“The IRS enforces the nation’s tax laws,” said C. Steve Howard, acting special agent in charge of IRS Criminal Investigation. “But we also take great interest in public officials who betray the public’s trust by diverting public money for their personal gain.”
The St. Clair Police Department also was involved in the investigation.
The St. Clair Fire Protection District primarily is funded by public funds, through real estate tax, personal property tax and sales tax.
“It’s good this thing is coming to a conclusion,” Banderman told The Missourian shortly after Hinson admitted to the embezzlement. “He (Hinson) was a public official and a person of trust. It’s something that never should have happened, but it did.
“It’s regrettable that it happened, but everyone has to be accountable for their actions. And whatever those consequences are, that’s what it is.
“I really don’t know what else to say.”
Hinson began with the district as a volunteer firefighter in 1985, was elected to the board of directors for the district in 1997, and as treasurer of the district in 1999. In January 2011, he became the fire chief for the district while continuing to perform his duties as treasurer until his resignation as chief on Sept. 28, 2011.
The investigation into the misappropriation of funds started at the same time as Hinson’s resignation. Current Treasurer Dave Berkel said Hinson’s purchase of a $55 pair of boots for his son was the original trigger that led to the investigation into the misappropriation of funds.
As treasurer, Hinson was responsible for preparing the annual budgets, facilitating the annual financial statement audit, gaining approval from the district’s board of directors for expenditures, reconciling bank statements and performing other accounting-related activities in the QuickBooks general ledger system other than for payroll. He also had the ability to access the QuickBooks system remotely from outside the district offices.
According to the indictment, Hinson used the district credit cards to pay for family vacations to Hawaii and Florida, to pay for personal items such as sporting goods and other items, limousine rentals, tickets to Six Flags, Big Surf Water Park and other entertainment expenses, restaurant meals, gasoline and hotel rooms, as well as to obtain significant cash advances.
Without the knowledge and authority of the district, Hinson directed that these personal credit card charges be paid with district funds. Further, on several occasions, according to the indictment, Hinson wrote district checks to pay for his own personal expenses, including checks to Ford Credit for a pickup truck, to Macy’s for furniture, to John Deere Credit for tractor parts, and checks to Bank of America and Fifth Third Bank for other personal expenses.
The indictment states that in order to conceal his scheme, Hinson accessed the district’s QuickBooks to alter reported general ledger activity by backdating certain of his fraudulent transactions and by changing the payee in order to manipulate the district’s accounting records so as to hide the existence of his fraudulent transactions. Through his fraudulent conduct, Hinson obtained about $593,236 from the St. Clair Fire Protection District.
The fraud investigation into the misappropriation of funds was conducted by BKD CPAs and Advisors of Kansas City.
Hinson also served as chief of the Ladue Fire Department. He resigned from that position last year.