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Former fire chief investigated over missing money

by Diana Zoga / News 4

KMOV.com

Posted on September 12, 2012 at 9:48 PM

Updated Thursday, Sep 13 at 11:29 AM

ST. CLAIR, Mo (KMOV.com) -- A former fire chief is under investigation, accused of stealing from his small, hometown fire department.  Eric Hinson was the fire chief in Ladue, but he also juggled part-time duties in his hometown of St. Clair, Missouri.  The St. Clair Fire Protection District says federal investigators are now looking into Hinson's handling of the department's finances while he was the fire chief and treasurer.

"As board treasurer, he really controlled everything with the finances and that was part of the problem that the district had," said Dave Berkel, the current board treasurer.

Tuesday night, the St. Clair Fire Protection District board received a claim check for $100,000 from a bonding firm that cites Eric Hinson's actions as board treasurer as the reason for the payout.  A public official bond guarantees the performance of an official, similar to taking out an insurance policy.

St. Clair won't say exactly how much money may be missing, but the bond payout indicates it's at least $100,000.

Berkel says financial irregularities were discovered last year, after the fire department's office manager noticed an unpaid bill.

"From there, she brought it to my attention,'" said Berkel.

"The more we looked at it, the worse it got."

The fire department in St. Clair, which is located about 50 miles southwest of St. Louis, is made up of mostly volunteers.  There are 18 paid positions, including the part-time chief's position.

Hinson was promoted to chief in St. Clair in January 2011.  Before that, he served on the board of directions since 1997 and took on the role of treasurer in 1999.  Hinson's relationship with the department goes back to his teenage years, as a junior firefighter.

"Personally, before all this came down, I would have trusted him with my wallet," said Berkel.

Hinson was also a firefighter in Ladue for 20 years.  He was promoted to chief last summer, but turned in his two weeks notice on August 24, 2012.  His last day was September 7th. 

Mike Wooldridge, Ladue's City Clerk, says Hinson told the city he planned to retire.  Hinson is in his 40s.  He would not be able to draw on his retirement until his 50s.

Wooldridge says Hinson's resignation was voluntary and the city knows of an investigation in St. Clair, but there is nothing to indicate there were any issues in Ladue.

In St. Clair, Hinson resigned as fire chief in September of 2011, shortly after the board hired a private auditing firm to conduct a forensic audit. 

One of Hinson's attorneys, Catherine Hanaway, said Hinson is aware of a U.S. Attorney's Office investigation.  She added, "The investigation is not related to the quality of service he provided as fire chief".

News 4 also contacted the FBI and IRS, but neither agency would confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.

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