The day after retired Assistant Fire Chief Brian Burkeen was arrested for an alleged black-market tire sales scheme, Indian River County Commissioner Tim Zorc got an anonymous tip.
While the community at-large might have been shocked to see Burkeen’s alleged fall from grace, those who worked alongside him knew what their boss was up to, but were too afraid to report him, the informant said.
“There was a very real fear of retribution among the firefighters, so no one turned Burkeen in, though it was pretty widely known what he was doing,” the message states, according to e-mails obtained by Vero Beach 32963. “[The] County might want to institute some sort of anonymous tip line for waste and theft,” it said.
Burkeen, 55, a longtime county official who also briefly served on the Sebastian City Council, was purchasing new tires at Goodyear stores using county funds and then selling them to private buyers he met at work and online, police say.
Investigators were able to document some $288,250 in questionable tire purchases billed by Burkeen to the county between June 26, 2014, and Feb. 8, 2018, the day prior to the assistant chief’s retirement. It is alleged he sometimes made multiple trips to the tire store in a single day, hauling away trailer-loads of new tires, which he stored at a barn on his property in Fellsmere.
Police say he sold the tires to people he knew and advertised them on Facebook.
The validity of the tipster’s claims that other county workers knew what Burkeen was doing is still unknown, County Attorney Dylan Reingold said last week. A part of the county’s ongoing investigation includes interviews with Fire and Rescue staff to understand the circumstances of the theft.
“As soon as Chief (John) King became aware of the possible wrongdoing, a report was filed with the Sheriff’s Office requesting an investigation,” County Administrator Jason Brown said. “My hope would be that any employee would report any wrongdoing that they are aware of in the future.
“The county’s handling of this situation should provide comfort that management will take positive steps to investigate and stop any such wrongdoing. We take our responsibility as custodians of the taxpayers’ dollars very seriously.”
Though public details about the internal investigation have been scant, communication between county officials in the days that follow Burkeen’s arrest show a governmental body frantically trying to recover its loss and understand how hundreds of thousands of dollars in suspect purchases escaped scrutiny for so long.
Burkeen was arrested March 26 and later charged with grand theft. Just before 5 p.m. the day of the arrest, Reingold wrote commissioners with the news. “Please find attached the information that was provided today by the Sheriff,” he said in an e-mail which included the 8-page arrest warrant detailing Burkeen’s alleged offenses.
The tipster’s note was forwarded to Zorc the following morning, at 9:02 a.m. on March 27.
That same day, Fire Chief John King was asked to provide a written overview of the purchasing procedure for Emergency Services. Internal auditors wanted to know: How was the tire budget established each year and who was involved? Who authorized invoices and who reviewed the books?
“It would be helpful if you could provide the information this week,” Suzanne Boyll, director of Human Resources, wrote to King.
Officials also began inquiring about Burkeen’s other financial dealings. Budget Director Michael Smykowski asked the Clerk of Court to review expenses associated with the construction and outfitting of Fire Station Number 14.
“Final invoices and retainage have not been paid to the contractor,” Smykowski said April 2. “Please note that Mr. Brian Burkeen was the county’s representative assigned on the Station #14 project.”
The county is disputing some charges from Goodyear, has filed a theft claim with its insurance carrier and is seeking restitution, possibly from Burkeen’s retirement account.
“It is my understanding that, as of today, Mr. Burkeen has not taken a distribution from his (retirement) account and it is our hope that a hold on any distribution could be placed on Mr. Burkeen’s account due to the severity of the allegations … and the financial impact to Indian River County in excess of $288K,” Boyll wrote the State Board of Administration April 3 as part of a chain of e-mails titled “Possible legal block.”
As officials struggled to understand their next steps, explanations given to the taxpayers were sparse.
“Stick to the original statement,” Reingold advised Brown the day before a joint press conference with the Sheriff. “If asked about what the county is doing, say that now that the police investigation is complete we will review the work conducted by the Sheriff’s Office and conduct our own investigation into the matter.”
Burkeen faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted of the charges against him.