by Sam Levin
What happens when you steal more than half a million dollars from the fire department you run?
In the case of Eric Hinson, you get to spend 35 months in prison -- and have to pay the money back.
Hinson, former chief of the St. Clair Fire Protection District and Ladue Fire Department, officials say, misused roughly $593,236 in district funds between January of 2006 and September of 2011. When the feds launched an investigation into Hinton, he resigned as chief of both departments and eventually was indicted. Now he will have to serve time for his theft as well as pay restitution.
"In rural Missouri, volunteer fire personnel are the backbone of public safety when it comes to our homes and property," U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan says in a statement. "Aside from our thanks, they deserve much better than this from their leaders."
See also: - Feds: Former Fire Chief of St. Clair, MO Stole More than a Half a Million - Darran Kelley: Fire Chief Adds to List of Indicted Kinloch Officials - Kinloch Fire Protection District in Dispute With St. Louis County Over TIF Funds
As we reported back in January when he was indicted, Hinson, now 43, began as a volunteer firefighter in 1985 for the publicly funded fire department in St. Clair, which has four fire houses and eighteen full-time firefighters. He became treasurer in 1999.
And by 2006, he was embezzling funds for a wide range of personal uses, federal prosecutors say.
Hinson reportedly took out several credit cards in the name of his employer and then used them for a all sorts of expenses, including purchasing sporting goods, renting limousines, buying tickets to Six Flags and Big Surf Water Park, going on family vacations to Hawaii and Florida, paying for hotels, and on and on and on.
He paid for smaller things, too, including gas and meals and also used the money to "obtain significant cash advances," federal officials say.
He was apparently able to access these funds as treasurer, in part, because he was responsible for reconciling bank statements, using the district's QuickBooks system remotely, facilitating an annual audit and more.
Hinson allegedly filed false tax returns from 2006 to 2010, leaving a total of $132,383 of additional taxes due. He pleaded guilty in February to one felony count of mail fraud and five felony counts of tax evasion and yesterday appeared for sentencing.
U.S. District Judge Richard Webber ordered him to spend nearly three years behind bars and pay a restitution of $615,298.
Dean Bryant, special agent in charge of the FBI St. Louis division, released this statement yesterday:
The people of the City of St. Clair should applaud their fire department for their integrity. The fire department itself exposed the crime of their former boss at the expense of their department's reputation knowing it was the right thing to do.
Meanwhile, Hinson apologized in court, the Post-Dispatch reports, saying, "There are no excuses."
He repaid $593,000 yesterday, the paper reports, but still owes about $22,000 for the cost of the district's investigation into the theft -- and may owe more in back taxes.
Here's the full sentencing announcement followed by the original indictment.
FORMER CHIEF OF ST. CLAIR FIRE PROTECTION DISTRICT & LADUE FIRE DEPARTMENT SENTENCED ON FEDERAL FRAUD & TAX CHARGES
St. Louis, MO - Eric Hinson was sentenced to 35 months in prison on mail fraud and multiple tax evasion charges involving his misuse of approximately $593,236 of St. Clair Fire Protection District funds between January 2006 and September 2011. As a result of the federal investigation, Hinson resigned his positions as Chief at both the St. Clair Fire Protection District and the Ladue Fire Department. In addition to the prison sentence, he was ordered to pay restitution of $615,298.
"In rural Missouri volunteer fire personnel are the backbone of public safety when it comes to our homes and property," said U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan. "Aside from our thanks, they deserve much better than this from their leaders."
The St. Clair Fire Protection District (District) provides fire protection service for Franklin County, Missouri, and has four fire houses, 18 full-time fire fighters and between 25-50 volunteer fire fighters. The District is primarily funded by public funds, through real estate tax, personal property tax and sales tax. Eric Hinson began with the District as a volunteer firefighter during 1985, was elected to the Board of Directors for the District in 1997, and as Treasurer of the District in 1999. During January, 2011, he became the Fire Chief for the District while continuing to perform his duties as Treasurer until his resignation from the District on September 28, 2011. 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 court documents, 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, 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. 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 approximately $593,236 from the St. Clair Fire Protection District.
Additionally, Hinson filed false tax returns for the years 2006 through 2010, leaving total additional taxes due of $132,383.
Hinson, 43, St. Clair, MO, pled guilty in February to one felony count of mail fraud and five felony counts of tax evasion and appeared today for sentencing before United States District Judge E. Richard Webber.
This case was investigated by the St. Clair Police Department, Federal Bureau of Investigation and Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation, with the assistance of the St. Clair Fire Protection District. Assistant United States Attorney Hal Goldsmith handled the case for the U.S. Attorney's Office.