The statement released by the St. Clair Fire Protection District board of directors earlier this week that linked former Fire Chief Eric Hinson with the ongoing investigation into financial irregularities within the department does not bring any other individuals, including fire district employees or firefighters, into the case.
On Tuesday night during a regular fire board meeting, Treasurer Dave Berkel read a statement that for the first time officially linked Hinson to the investigation almost a year after the board first discovered the irregularities.
“We received a check from VFIS/Glatfelter Claim Service for $100,000, and it has been deposited in our account,” Berkel said in reading the statement at St. Clair Fire House 1 on North Street before an audience of about 30 people, most of whom are local firefighters. “This check is due to an ongoing investigation concerning Eric R. Hinson about his duties with the St. Clair Fire Protection District as board treasurer.”
Volunteer Firemen’s Insurance Services Inc. is the St. Clair department’s insurance carrier. Glatfelter is the claims firm the insurance company uses.
Before becoming St. Clair fire chief for a short time last year, Hinson was the board of directors’ treasurer from April 1997 to January 2011. Before he resigned as chief about a year ago, he had served with the St. Clair Fire Protection District for about 25 years.
Berkel replaced Hinson as the board’s treasurer when Hinson was named chief in January 2011. The other two board members are President Kirby Banderman and Secretary Danny Gossett.
On Sept. 28, 2011, during the same St. Clair Fire Protection District board of directors meeting in which Hinson submitted his resignation as chief, public minutes stated that the three-member board that night unanimously voted to “engage the services” of BKD Certified Public Accountants & Advisors “to investigate the financials for the St. Clair Fire Protection District as necessary.”
The vote came after the board went into executive session to “discuss legal matters,” the minutes stated.
The “irregularities in the financial practices and accounting of the district” were discovered by a board member, a press release from the three-member board read.
“The thing that got the whole ball rolling was a purchase made that he (Hinson) never reimbursed us for,” Berkel told The Missourian. “It was brought to my attention, and that’s when we started the investigation.”
Berkel confirmed to The Missourian that the “suspicions arose last year in September and were confirmed in October.”
On Tuesday during its meeting, the board said the $100,000 was given by the insurance company to the fire district because that is the amount of money the department was insured for in this specific incident. At the time, the district had a $100,000 insurance policy on each board member as well as the district’s office manager.
Those amounts have since been increased to $300,000.
Hinson recently quit his job as fire chief in Ladue. Ladue Assistant Fire Chief Jeff Johnson told The Missourian this month that Hinson submitted his resignation as chief of the Ladue Fire Department at the beginning of this month, effective Sept. 7.
Johnson did not say why Hinson said he was quitting his job. He also said he would not make any additional comment on the issue. Ladue city officials would not return repeated telephone calls to their offices.
Hinson, now 43 years old, was 41 when he became St. Clair’s fire district leader at the beginning of last year. For a short time in 2011, he served as fire chief for both departments.
This past Tuesday night, Berkel said the fire board could not release much other information on the case.
“At this time, we are unable to release any of the details of this investigation due to another ongoing investigation into this same manner,” he said. “We (board of directors) have worked diligently with Glatfelter Claims Service to confirm all details in this matter and again want to thank (fire district office manager) Anna Marie Short, Interim Chief Mike Kelley and BKD CPAs and Advisors for their assistance in this matter.”
BKD is the company that conducted the forensic audit into the St. Clair Fire Protection District’s financial situation, Berkel said.
The only other thing board members said they could say about the case is that no one else on the board of directors or in the department is involved in the alleged financial irregularities.
“The entire department has been investigated, and at this time we can confirm that only Mr. Hinson has been connected to the financial losses associated with the department,” the board members said jointly. “Due to the ongoing investigation, we can’t disclose any linking documents at this time. We can confirm Mr. Hinson is involved.”
The board members said that after financial documentation was turned into the bonding company, and after further investigation into the matter board members signed a release and assignment letter which states that if the department receives full restitution, the board must repay the $100,000.
It has not been released how much money may be involved with the case or what Hinson’s involvement may entail, including what crimes he may be charged with, if he will surrender to authorities, what potential jail time he may face and what kind of fines may be instituted. It is speculated, however, that the amount of money involved is substantially more than the $100,000.
Berkel said the amount of money potentially involved never has been released. An amount was erroneously reported and attributed to Berkel in a News-Dispatch article earlier this week.
“We still cannot release specifics on the case involving Mr. Hinson,” the board members said. “This is on the advice from the investigating authorities.”
“We wish we could elaborate further,” Banderman said Tuesday evening. “We just can’t at this time because the investigation is ongoing.”
No one in attendance on Tuesday asked the board any questions.
Later during the same Sept. 28, 2011, fire board meeting, the directors again voted to go into executive session “to discuss personnel matters.” When the meeting returned to open session, Berkel read Hinson’s letter of resignation, which unanimously was accepted by the board.
In January of this year, St. Clair Police Chief Bill Hammack and Berkel both confirmed the investigation to The Missourian, but would provide little additional information. They did say the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were involved.
“We are going through and looking into irregularities in financials of the fire district,” Berkel said in January. “These occurred from 2011 and before. We’re going through some questionable transactions.”
In the spring, Berkel told The Missourian that “the investigation is ongoing.” He made the same comment late last month and said he could not provide any additional information then as well.
Neither Berkel nor Hammack would release any names of individuals potentially involved until Berkel’s announcement Tuesday on behalf of the fire board. Hammack officially has not commented on the case since January.
But when The Missourian first broke the fire department investigation story at the beginning of this year, Hammack told the newspaper that the fire protection district contacted his department on the same day as the Sept. 28 board meeting.
“We are conducting the joint investigation dealing with the report of funds that are missing from the (fire) department,” Hammack said at the time. “Our investigation is based on the audit findings so far.”
Jan Diltz, public affairs officer with the U.S. District Attorney’s Office in St. Louis, has provided no information on the case. In addition, officials with the IRS office in Chesterfield have declined to comment.
Meeting Time Line
The 6 p.m. Sept. 28, 2011, St. Clair Fire Protection District board of directors meeting started with a statement made that there was a legal matter to discuss in executive session. About 10 minutes later, the board came out of that executive session and into open session, where a vote was taken to engage the services of BKD CPA & Advisors to investigate the financials for the St. Clair Fire Protection District as necessary.
Just before 6:30 p.m. and after a short recess, the meeting was called back into open session. Hinson arrived for the meeting at that time.
Another motion then was made and approved to return to executive session to discuss personnel matters. Shortly after 7 p.m., the meeting returned to open session. Hinson’s resignation letter was read, and a motion was made and approved to accept the resignation.