Mo. Chief Gets Jail for Stealing $593K from District

June 14, 2013
He used money for vacations in Florida and Hawaii, furniture, limo rides, jewelry, sports equipment, entertainment expenses, credit card bills and a truck.

June 13--ST. LOUIS -- The former chief of the St. Clair Fire District was sentenced to 35 months in prison Thursday for stealing $593,000 in district funds.

While the district struggled to find the money to replace aging equipment, their former chief, Eric Hinson, was taking out cash advances and spending the district's money on vacations in Florida and Hawaii, furniture, limo rides, jewelry, sports equipment, entertainment expenses, credit card bills and a truck, prosecutors said.

He covered up the hundreds of illicit transactions by destroying or altering the accounting records, continuing to access the accounting system from home after he was found out, Assistant U.S. Attorney Hal Goldsmith said in court. In court filings, Goldsmith said an arrogant Hinson treated the district's "coffers as his own personal piggy bank."

In letters to U.S. District Judge E. Richard Webber, firefighters and officials said that Hinson's greed prevented the district from buying vital equipment, hiring firefighters and potentially funding pensions for firefighters.

It also "absolutely shattered" the trust between the citizens, the fire district and their employees, Goldsmith said.

District officials and employees said that since the scandal surfaced, they've suffered accusations that they were involved, or should have caught Hinson sooner.

"While the rumors have slowed and the fingers no longer point, we still walk with a limp and a black eye," Lt. Jason Hatley wrote to Webber.

Hinson lawyer Catherine Hanaway said that the district's claims about pensions and old equipment were an "exaggeration."

Hinson apologized in court to both citizens and members of the fire district saying, "There are no excuses."

Hinson started as a volunteer firefighter with St. Clair in 1985. He became treasurer in 1999 and added the chief's title in January 2011. The part-time job paid roughly $25,000.

In July 2011, he also became chief in Ladue. There has been no claim of financial improprieties there. Hinson resigned both jobs that September because of the investigation.

Hinson was indicted in federal court here in January and pleaded guilty in February to one count of mail fraud and five counts of tax evasion.

He admitted stealing the money from January 2006 through September 2011 and filing false tax returns for 2006-2010 that failed to report the money he embezzled as income.

Hinson repaid $593,000 of the money Thursday, thanks to the generosity of a relative. He still owes roughly $22,000 for the cost of the district's investigation into the theft and could owe more to the IRS for back taxes.

Under federal sentencing guidelines, Hinson faced 33 to 41 months in prison.

Outside court, current Treasurer David Berkel said that the district could now catch up on maintenance issues, possibly pay off some of the equipment that they leased and perhaps hire some firefighters or think about some form of pension.

The St. Clair district serves an area along Interstate 44, about 50 miles southwest of St. Louis, with a combination of paid firefighters and volunteers spread among four stations.

Copyright 2013 - St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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