Racist KY fire chief's offices raided as part of insurance fraud investigation
Bullitt County Sheriff’s deputies searched the home and office of Southeast Bullitt Fire Department chief Julius Hatfield on Tuesday as part of an investigation into alleged insurance fraud and abuse of public trust.
Several agencies have been looking into Hatfield and his department for six months, seizing dozens of documents believed to be related to the fire department on Thursday. Tuesday afternoon, officers executed the search warrants on Hatfield’s home and the fire station where he works.
They are specifically looking into whether the fire department bilked insurance companies by inflating clean-up costs for automobile accidents to which firefighters responded, WDRB has learned.
The sheriff’s department says it plans to take the evidence directly to a grand jury for possible indictment. The FBI is also investigating, along with the State Auditor’s Office and the State Fire Board.
The sheriff’s department will pursue charges against Chief Hatfield, including official misconduct, insurance fraud, abuse of public trust, intimidating a witness in a legal process and bribing a witness. The charges concern the Southeast Bullitt Fire Department taking in about $1 million a year and spending only $375,000 to run the district.
During the search Tuesday, Hatfield quickly left the firehouse in his red truck and went straight to his house, where he was met with more sheriff’s deputies. He called his attorney and then investigators went through his home.
On his property, there is a lot of expensive equipment, including an RV, a boat, a golf cart and several cars.
Outside Hatfield’s home, Southeast Bullitt Fire Department attorney Jeffrey Freeman told WDRB, “I am the attorney who represents the department and the district in some civil matters so I am not his criminal attorney. There is really nothing I can tell you. [Investigators] did their business and went on and didn’t describe why.”
Back at the firehouse, investigators scoured financial records and took photographs of all the fire equipment, including several fire engines, an RV and a boat. They spent more than three hours conducting the search and then hauled away computers and folders from the building.
Firefighters were also questioned one-by-one behind closed doors.
It’s just the latest headache for the embattled fire chief. There have been international calls for Hatfield to step down or be fired after he used a racial slur when referring to a black family he was supposed to be helping at the scene of an accident in September.
When a police officer commented that emergency crews had to find a way for the family to get back to Cincinnati after their car was damaged, Hatfield replied, “We ain’t taking no n—— here.” Then he laughed.
Hatfield also came under fire for comments he made to WDRB reporter Valerie Chinn earlier this month when Chinn confronted him with questions at a meeting of the Southeast Bullitt Fire Protection District.
Though it was a public meeting, Hatfield tried to remove the WDRB crew from the room and even asked one of his associates to call the police. After asserting her right to attend the meeting, Chinn placed a microphone on the board’s table, but Hatfield knocked it to the floor when her back was turned. He then told her, “I dropped that thing.”
Hatfield then tried to avoid Chinn as she asked the chief questions about empty firehouses and allegations of financial mismanagement after the meeting.
“Why are there so many firehouses that are empty?” Chinn asked as she followed Hatfield around with a microphone.
“Do you understand English, darling? Do you understand English?” Hatfield replied.
The comments went viral, drawing people from around the world to call for his resignation.
Among those asking Hatfield to step down is Dan Thibodeaux, a board member of the Southeast Fire Protection District.
“We don’t need people like that representing a high-profile position in our county,” Thibodeaux said. “Our county is not racist. I personally think the man should resign this position he’s in and get this behind us before further trouble takes place. We don’t need that. We don’t need protesters coming in here tearing up the town over one individual.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Bullitt County Judge-Executive Melanie Roberts. While her office has no legal authority to remove Hatfield, Roberts said she has told the three fire district board members she appointed to “do the right thing” by encouraging Hatfield to resign.
“The feedback my office is getting is [people] being extremely upset and appalled with the extreme insensitivity that was shown and we have responded to each and every email,” Roberts told WDRB.
WDRB has been looking into the Southeast Bullitt Fire Department for nearly a year. It started when volunteer firefighters said they were wrongfully terminated by Hatfield. That led to an investigation by the Kentucky Fire Commission, which found that training records within the department were falsified.
In April, the department was forced to pay back $18,600 in state incentive pay Hatfield had received from 2008 to 2013 after Hatfield admitted to the Kentucky Fire Commission he wasn’t at state-required trainings.
In recent months, residents started questioning how the department is spending their tax dollars. Southeast Bullitt has six firehouses but only five full-time employees. Two of the firehouses sit unused.
The Southeast Bullitt Fire Protection District collects the taxes — about $1 million a year — and turns over basically all of the money to the Southeast Bullitt Fire Department Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides the fire service.
Hatfield is on both sides, as chairman of the fire district and vice chairman of the nonprofit organization. He’s been the registered agent of the nonprofit since the early 1990s, according to Kentucky Secretary of State records.
Yet Hatfield seemed to imply that the public doesn’t have the right to scrutinize how the nonprofit spends the money it receives from fire district taxpayers.
“[It’s] not taxpayer money by the time it gets to us,” Hatfield told WDRB on camera earlier this month.
WDRB requested the nonprofit’s IRS tax returns for 2012 and 2013, but the department said it did not have them, saying those years are “being audited.”
Tax returns WDRB was able to obtain show that the department has been accumulating surpluses.
In 2011, its net assets swelled to $4.6 million. That year, it spent just over $530,000, but received $1.4 million in tax money.
A partial-year 2012 tax form shows the department paid Hatfield more than $38,000, while saying he worked an average of 20 hours a week.
The Kentucky Auditor’s Office tells WDRB it is wrapping up its examination of the department. The auditor’s office took a brief look at Southeast Bullitt Fire last year and suggested the nonprofit organization improve its financial reporting to the district board.