Melissa Ann Severt, 44, of the 1900 block of Constitution Drive has been arrested on charges of fraud/swindle and larceny.
The former employee of Holley Navarre Fire District is accused of raiding nearly $56,000 out of the firefighters’ pension fund over the four-year span of her employment.
According to Chief Ron Norton, the transactions were discovered during routine account maintenance of the pension fund by employees of Coastal Bank and that there was a number of ATM withdrawals that incurred fees. On December 7, 2016, the bank employee contacted the treasurer of the fund, who in turn contacted the chairman of the fund, Joe Early, Fire Inspector for the department.
“When they called me I went down to the bank to review the account statements,” said Early. “I was standing in the bank, looking at the transactions, thinking this can’t be real. I was shocked and in disbelief.”
Early says later in the day, he was contacted by Severt and she admitted to the crime. Severt’s arrest report says she went on to tell Early that she was using the money to pay her bills and that she was sorry. She was immediately terminated. The next day, the case was turned over to the Santa Rosa Sheriff’s Office as well as the district’s auditor to begin the investigation.
In an April interview with investigators, Severt says during her employment she was not compensated for overtime and the work “kept piling on her.” She said she was promised a raise, but never received it. She said she had fallen so deep in debt that she didn’t have any way out and was going to lose her home.
All of the transactions, as noted in the report, were cash withdrawals at the ATM located inside Winn Dixie within walking distance to the fire station on Esplanade Street where Severt worked.
As to why Severt wasn’t caught earlier, Norton said, “There was one debit card associated with the account. It was locked away in a file cabinet, but she knew where it was. She had a front row seat and knew how to circumvent the process. She worked hand-in-hand with the auditors, so she knew what they were looking for and how to cover her tracks.”
The district representatives say their insurance company will cover the loss and the money will go back to the firefighters’ pension fund. In the meantime, Early says they have taken great measures to ensure this never happens again.
“We have made several changes to the pension fund. We now have an outside financial institution as a custodian of the account and there is not a debit card attached to the account. All credits cards, passwords and other accounts have been secured and safeguarded.”
Norton assured that the district’s general operating account, funded by tax payer dollars was not compromised. The Holley-Navarre Firefighters Pension Trust Fund, or retirement fund, is separate from the fire district’s general fund from which the department operates. The pension fund is managed by a separate board of trustees and is not under the authority of the fire district. “She stole from the firefighters, who are here to serve the citizens. These are the same firefighters who volunteered their time and bought supplies out of their pockets to build Melissa a new front porch when she needed it. We all treated her like family, had full confidence in her and so this was the ultimate betrayal,” Norton said.
Severt remains in jail on a $40,000 bond.