A fire official's purchase of a $55 pair of Red Wing work boots for his son triggered an investigation that led to a federal charge Wednesday accusing him of stealing more than $593,000 from the St. Clair Fire District, its treasurer said. Eric Hinson, 43, formerly fire chief for St. Clair and in Ladue, was indicted in U.S. District Court in St. Louis on one felony count of mail fraud and five felony counts of tax evasion. There was no indication of theft from Ladue.
Hinson took out "significant" cash advances and spent St. Clair district money on family vacations to Florida and Hawaii, entertainment, limo rentals, truck payments and other personal purchases, prosecutors said. The district serves an area along Interstate 44, about 50 miles southwest of St. Louis, with a combination of paid firefighters and volunteers using four stations.
Jeff Jensen, one of Hinson's attorneys, declined to comment on specific allegations.
"Mr. Hinson has served the community and his fellow firefighters well and heroically for decades," Jensen said. "This appears to be an accounting matter, and we will be going over the records to try and determine what happened."
Fire district Treasurer Dave Berkel said the work boots raised the first questions about Hinson's spending. "Our office manager brought the purchase to the attention of our board and they tried to get (Hinson) to pay for it but he wouldn't pay for it. He kept saying he had paid for it," Berkel said. "We started looking further and the more we looked, the worse it got."
Berkel said officials took their suspicions to federal authorities.
The district collected $100,000, its coverage limit for losses from misappropriation of funds, from Volunteer Firemen's Insurance Services Inc. Berkel said he hoped that if Hinson was convicted, the court would require full restitution.
"He had the district pretty well strapped. We had to cut a lot of spending and put off maintenance issues," Berkel explained.
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 chief's job paid roughly $25,000.
In July 2011, he was hired as chief of the Ladue Fire Department, and worked at both until his resignations that September because of the investigation.
Prosecutors claim he also filed false tax returns for 2006-10, under-reporting his income by $400,000.
Written by St. Louis Post-Dispatch