As part of the sentencing process for former St. Clair Fire Protection District Chief and Treasurer Eric Hinson, several individuals from within the district sent impact statements to U.S. District Court Judge E. Richard Webber.
They included board member Kirby Banderman and former board member Danny Gossett, board member Dave Berkel, Office Manager Anna Marie Short, Interim Chief Mike Kelley, Deputy Chief Craig Sullivan, Lt. Jason Hatley, Dale Sullivan, Larry Lawrence, Nolan Sanders, Tim Wideman and former St. Clair firefighter Edwin Berkel.
Last Thursday, Hinson was sentenced to 35 months in prison and ordered to pay full restitution for misuse of $593,236 of the district’s funds over a six-year period. The sentence came after he was indicted on the fraud and tax evasion charges in January and pleaded guilty to them in February.
Following are excerpts from some of those statements, many of which speak about betrayal and trust.
Kirby Banderman and Danny Gossett
“It is well established by auditors retained by the district, the FBI and the IRS the massive monetary amounts which were taken by Mr. Hinson and the extensive measures taken to divert and conceal the theft of district funds. But something far more valuable was taken, and that is trust.
“The citizens of the district have always trusted us to provide fire and rescue services with the funding provided by the taxpayers. That trust was broken by the actions of Mr. Hinson. Now they always will have doubts as to whether funds are properly used and accounted for. ...
“I cannot adequately express the disgust and disappointment that someone who we considered to be one of our own would betray the organization in the manner that he has. His actions have caused doubts about the integrity of the other elected officials and the organization as a whole. That may lead to the worst consequence of all. We can no longer ever completely trust the other elected officials, officers or employees of the district, and if we cannot trust those within our organization, how can the public trust in us? No amount of punishment or restitution can ever adequately compensate us for that loss.”
“The taxpayers and members of the department have always trusted the board members to do the right thing and provide the best service possible. Due to the deceit and greed of Eric Hinson, this trust has been compromised and damaged, leaving a difficult road for the district to travel to gain their trust back. Stealing the money from the taxpayers and department is one thing but betraying the trust of so many is the long-term effect of this despicable crime. ...
“The fire department has also been impacted by the greed of Eric Hinson. The men who serve and protect depend on trust whether it is the trust of their brothers working side by side in life-threatening situations of the trust that the district is financially sound to provide for them and their families.”
Anna Marie Short
“Writing this statement has been very difficult for me. I considered Eric Hinson more of a friend than a boss. As the office manager, we worked closely on many matters pertaining to the district. When it became clear what he had been doing with district money, it angered and sickened me. ...
“Decisions he made within the department were to his benefit with no regards to how those decisions affected the employees and day-to-day operations. ...
“In my nine years with the St. Clair Fire Protection District, I have typed and read the resolution that swears in a board of director. There is a paragraph that a candidate solemnly swears to. That being, to support the Constitution, demean one’s self faithfully in office, to be honest, faithful and perform their duties impartially. The actions taken by Eric Hinson have been the extreme opposite.
“For a public servant to be given the opportunity to serve and then act in such a way as living their daily lives extravagantly using taxpayer money is a disgrace.
“Words cannot express to our taxpayers that this is in no way, shape or form acceptable behavior. With restitution, the district can begin the task of repairing the financial responsibility to the citizens and hopefully regain their trust.”
“Our business is based on trust. We need the citizens of our fire protection district to trust that not only will we be there for them when needed but that we also will be responsible stewards of their tax money. Mr. Hinson’s actions have caused dissension within the fire protection district, dissension that will take some time to correct. We are embarrassed and we are hurt. ...
“Everyone impacted by Mr. Hinson’s crime has been paying a price for the past 18 months and will continue to for some time. ... The fire protection district, my family and I look forward to closing this chapter of our lives.”
“Mr. Hinson in a matter of approximately six years, because of selfishness, greed, arrogance, dishonesty and a total disregard for the protection and well-being of our taxpayers along with the safety of our fire personnel, both paid and volunteer, not only placed this solid, well-functioning fire district in a state of financial disarray, he has damaged a very good relationship based on trust between the fire district and its citizens for whom we work for, protect and depend on to financially operate.
“In my 30 years of service to the St. Clair Fire Protection District, I cannot recall a time when we were not able to make repairs, purchase essential components such as tires and batteries for apparatus or repair equipment carried on the apparatus that could potentially save a life because the fire district financially was placed in such a serious position.
“Through the dedication of all district personnel we were able to overcome this initial financial burden. We, the personnel of the fire district, both paid and volunteer, are tasked with rebuilding what was once a very well-known and respected fire district. But a far greater task is looming over us, that is to regain the confidence and trust of the citizens of the St. Clair Fire Protection District, who are hard-working people paying taxes to support us and who deserve and expect better than what has occurred. ...
“Eric Hinson ... has struck a serious blow to the integrity and financial wellbeing of the fire district. He has given the fire service a serious black eye as well as elected officials in every governmental subdivision.”
“When an elected official takes their oath and swears to protect the Constitution and to be faithful and honest, I trust them to do just that. This situation has opened my eyes to the fact that even though you may look up to someone or consider them a friend, you must still question their intentions, especially when they are in complete control.
“This has destroyed the name of our great fire district. Since it first hit the newspaper of our small town, all ranks of men have taken ridicule on duty, off duty, in local shops and restaurants, pretty much anywhere we go in town.
“We have watched the legacy left to us get dragged through the mud. Our public trust has diminished and some supporters we had before have now turned against us. While the rumors have slowed and fingers no longer point, we still walk with a limp and a black eye. ...
“While the light at the end of the tunnel is small and distant, we will recover. We will prevail. We are a tough band of brothers who while battered, we will not be broken.”
“I have been an active member of the St. Clair Fire Protection District for 57 years, starting in 1956 at the age of 17. ... In 1974, the St. Clair Fire Protection District was formed. The board of directors from that point on always managed the district’s finances with great care and was able to purchase overtime, state-of-the-art fire trucks, equipment and progressively grow from one station to currently four.
“In my close to 60 years of service with the district, I have never seen the district in such a state of turmoil because of the selfishness, greed, arrogance and most of all dishonesty of one man, Eric Hinson. ... Eric Hinson was obviously more concerned with his own personal financial gain than the financial well-being of the fire district. ...
“I cannot begin to describe how disheartening and sickening it is to see one person, Mr. Hinson, almost financially ruin one of the most well-known and respected fire districts in the state of Missouri.”