After receiving an anonymous letter saying he should resign because of the financial scandal at the St. Clair Fire Protection District involving former Chief Eric Hinson, Mayor Ron Blum wanted to make it perfectly clear that the city and the fire department are not connected in any way.
Blum received the letter earlier this month.
“I have read the article in The Missourian concerning the former St. Clair Fire Chief Eric Hinson and I have so many questions going through my head,” the letter starts. “How is it that you as the mayor were not aware of this? How did Hinson get $593,236 without being detected? This is unacceptable for the No. 1 man in charge to be completely unaware of this sort of thing. Shame on you! It is of my opinion you should resign or be impeached.”
Hinson, who resigned as St. Clair Fire Protection District chief last year when the financial misappropriation story broke, pleaded guilty in February to one felony count of fraud and five felony counts of tax evasion. His sentencing is set for May 2.
During the board of aldermen’s most recent meeting, Blum read the letter to those in attendance before making his clarification.
“St. Clair as a municipality and the St. Clair fire department are two separate entities,” the mayor said afterward. “I want to make that perfectly clear to everyone.”
St. Clair’s fire district is not connected to the city of St. Clair in any way. The two entities have separate budgets, separate boards and separate offices.
There are municipalities in Missouri that are in charge of their local fire departments. St. Clair is not one of those cities.
The St. Clair Fire Protection District primarily is funded by public funds, through real estate tax, personal property tax and sales tax.
“I have become all too familiar with the politics of a small town,” the letter states. “If you have known someone for a long time, then you think they must be a good, decent person that can be trusted. No questions asked and no searching for the truth. If you don’t know someone, then you think this person must not be trusted. This is a very foolish way of thinking. That small-town, small-minded thinking has cost the taxpayers $593,236.”
The end of the letter states that “it is in my best interest to submit this letter unsigned.”
Throughout the investigation leading into Hinson’s indictment in January, fire department officials and board members as well as members of the U.S. District Attorney’s Office and the Internal Revenue Service could not comment on the case. When asked several times by The Missourian for comments concerning the case, those connected to the investigation would provide none.
City officials and firefighters also were not kept in the loop.
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, it was determined that Hinson filed false tax returns for the years 2006 through 2010, leaving total additional taxes due of $132,383, a press release stated.
The St. Clair Police Department, an arm of the city of St. Clair, also was involved in the investigation.
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.
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.
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. However, Jan Diltz, public information officer with the Eastern District of Missouri’s U.S. Attorney’s Office, told The Missourian that according to federal sentencing guidelines, Hinson should face 33 to 41 months in prison.