Last week, Indian River County Fire Rescue’s former second in command, Brian Burkeen, was rumored to have signed a plea deal. Then the plea deal was mysteriously called off, and the March 9 trial was back on.
Burkeen could make an awful lot of people happy by entering a guilty plea on charges of stealing a quarter million dollars in tires purchased using taxpayer money. If the trial goes forward, it will make the county government, not to mention Burkeen’s old boss, retired Fire Chief John King, look either incredibly corrupt or incredibly stupid – or maybe both.
Investigators say Burkeen presented Goodyear with $288,000 in county purchase orders for more than 1,400 tires that the county did not need, carried the tires off by hand, transported them in his county-owned work truck and in a county-owned trailer to his personal barn in Fellsmere, and sold them to people he knew though Facebook.
He allegedly got away with doing this for nearly four years. The allegations, if true, make the leadership of the Indian River County Emergency Services District appear clueless.
Members of the County Attorney’s Office have reportedly attended all the depositions leading up to the trial, so politically, they know exactly what is coming – an old-fashioned drag through the mud.
“The county has been monitoring this case closely. We are hopeful that the courts will deliver a strong message that anyone who steals from government will be prosecuted vigorously and punished heavily for their crimes,” County Administrator Jason Brown said Monday.
On top of what would amount to a theft from county taxpayers, state coffers were allegedly also robbed of sales tax on the purchase price of the tires. That’s another $20,000 if all the charges against Burkeen are proven. When he was charged with a felony, Burkeen lost his pension payments and his county health insurance subsidy, pending trial. If convicted, Burkeen would lose his pension totally.
“Mr. Burkeen and his family are no longer members of the county’s health insurance program,” Brown said.
It’s tough for any “reasonable person” to think no one knew what Burkeen was (allegedly) doing. But it took the fresh eyes of Assistant Fire Chief Tad Stone, hired in August 2017 from Seminole County, to see something amiss with the accounts and ask questions that prompted a full audit of the purchasing records.
King called in Sheriff Deryl Loar’s detectives to report some suspicious activity – conveniently three weeks after Burkeen retired in February 2018 with 30 years of service. Then King retired and Stone was tapped to be the new fire chief.
Auditors found that a serious lack of internal controls left the county wide open to the type of theft and loss police say occurred. Kudos to the auditors and to Chief Stone for exposing the issue. It’s not easy to walk into a job and have one of your first official duties be to recommend turning a colleague over to the cops.
Burkeen was a well-known guy long before making headlines for being arrested, and he allegedly operated his scam on a large scale in plain sight. So why didn’t somebody blow the whistle on him?
County Commissioner Tim Zorc received an anonymous tip when Burkeen was arrested that became public record. “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 said.
The guys at Goodyear who sold Burkeen $288,000 worth of tires thought the volume Burkeen was carrying out the door was odd, so they asked.
“Burkeen told them that he buys extra tires that will be given out to citizens who filed lawsuit claims when their vehicle tires are damaged due to poor county road conditions (hitting a pothole),” the arrest warrant affidavit states. County officials told investigators there is no such program, and that Burkeen had nothing to do with lawsuits filed against the county for pothole damage.
What about all the people who allegedly got sweet deals on more than 1,400 tires purchased from Burkeen? Apparently, they believed one of two stories – that Burkeen got the tires at cost from his brother-in-law, or from his brother. Numerous people who purchased stolen property are set to testify, including county employees. So far, none has been implicated in the scheme.
“The county turned this over the Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement. They charged Mr. Burkeen with crimes, but no other County employees were charged or determined to be involved based upon the investigation,” Brown said when asked if any employees have been disciplined for buying tires from Burkeen.
They, too, would probably love it if Burkeen decided to take a plea.
But it’s probably better, in the long run, for public trust in government if Burkeen goes to trial. A jury made up of Indian River County taxpayers would then decide whether Burkeen is guilty of stealing from their pocketbooks and any flaws in county government would be exposed.