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Chief: Secretary who stole funds was making $12.80/hr and getting overtime, raises

Posted on May 11, 2017 by Mat Pellegrino

The secretary for the Holley-Navarre Fire Department was arrested last Thursday for stealing tens of thousands of dollars from the local fire department’s pension fund over the course of her 5 years of working on the job.
Forty-four-year-old Melissa Severt admitted to Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s deputies that she illegally withdrew tens of thousands of dollars from the department’s pension account because she felt she wasn’t being paid adequately.
Severt was interviewed by investigators and ultimately charged with one count of felony Larceny and one count of felony Fraud. She was placed behind bars at Santa Rosa County Jail and later released after posting bond.
According to the SRCSO arrest report, deputies met with HNFD Chief Ron Norton and Fire Marshal Joseph Early back in early December last year in regards to a fraud complaint. Both men advised law enforcement that their department secretary, Severt, had been placed on administrative leave due to them discovering the fact that she was fraudulently withdrawing funds from the General Fund of their pension account. They estimated a total of $54,986.50 had been fraudulently withdrawn from the account and that most of the withdrawals were done at local ATM’s. They were alerted to the fraud when their bank that had the pension funds account contacted them alerting them to the unusual amount of ATM withdrawal fees.
The numerous transactions were noted as being cash withdrawals from ATM located inside the Navarre Winn Dixie, which neighbors the Holley-Navarre Fire station on Esplanade Street.
When HNFD Chief Ron Norton found out about the illegal withdrawals, one word came to mind: betrayal.
“It was betrayal. Obviously when we found out, we were in shock,” Norton told South Santa Rosa News. “When you work with someone for five years and realize they’ve been stealing money from you, it’s total shock.”
Severt was allegedly using the account’s debit card to make the withdrawals from the ATM and that only she knew where the card was located at inside of the fire house.
“The card was only supposed to be utilized for things like the pension board, training sessions, travel…things of that nature. The biggest question I get is ‘How did you not notice?’ She was skimming a little bit off the top at a time and doctoring the paperwork,” Norton said, which made it nearly impossible for the department to trace the illegal activity.
After being placed on administrative leave, Severt called Early on the phone and admitted to the crime. According to the report, Severt told Early “Joe, can I tell you something? I did it”.
Norton said that after the confession, which was made on Dec. 8, she was fired.
Early said that Severt went on in the phone call to tell him that she was using the money to “pay her bills” and that she was sorry.
On April 13, investigators met with Severt at the Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office. Severt openly admitted to taking the money from the account and said she felt like she was not “compensated” enough for her work. She told authorities that she was also told she was going to get a raise, but never did.
Norton said that those were all lies she told authorities.
“She got a pay raise every year. She got paid for overtime as well. Don’t believe everything you read in the report. She was compensated well,” Norton said.
According to the fire chief, Severt was making almost $13 an hour along with her overtime pay.
According to the report, she told investigators that she was “loyal to the fire department”, but that she had fallen into debt so deep that she “didn’t have any way out”. According to the report, Severt said she was going to lose her vehicle, land and home and also mentioned the fact that her husband had been out of work for two years.
Norton said what made the incident even more hurtful was the fact that the department often gave back to her and her husband, even taking money out of their own pockets several years back to build them a new front porch for their home.
Even though tens of thousands of dollars was stolen, Norton said the department will get all of that money back stating they’ve already filed a claim with their insurance company and are in the process of finishing up paperwork for the claim.
“Through a clause in our insurance coverage, they are going to reimburse us,” Norton said.
Norton said the department has also done away with the debit card for the account and now utilizes an outside financial institution to handle the pension account. Norton said that the pension account is essentially the agency’s retirement fund account and is separate from their general operating account, which is funded by county tax payer dollars.
As for the open secretary position? The department already has that handled as well.
“Our former secretary, who retired for medical reasons, she’s coming back and working part time for us right now,” Norton said.
Severt was posted her $22,500 bond last Friday according to the Santa Rosa County Jail View website.