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Honored fireman investigated

Kenneth Hyde Sr. is a decorated Baltimore City fire division chief who was named one of Baltimore magazine's Baltimoreans of the Year for his actions after a water taxi capsized, was dispatched to aid Hurricane Katrina victims and was declared a hero on the floor of Congress.

However, an official investigation into his other role, as chief of the Riviera Beach Volunteer Fire Company in Anne Arundel County, has uncovered allegations of lax discipline at the firehouse. Investigators found evidence of sexual activity there, firefighters watching pornography on station computers and volunteers responding to calls after drinking alcohol.

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After that county fire department investigation was completed, Anne Arundel County Fire Department Chief David L. Stokes Sr. made a series of recommendations, including suspending Hyde for 60 days and demoting him for 90 more days. The volunteer fire company's board of directors followed all of his orders.

Yesterday, the county police department acknowledged that it is conducting its own probe into allegations of a sexual offense at the fire station and of financial wrongdoing.

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A third investigation, by the board into Hyde's use of the company's Visa credit card, was stalled Monday when the fire company's membership voted out several board directors involved in that probe.

Hyde did not return calls placed to his home, the Riviera Beach firehouse or the Baltimore City Fire Department yesterday, and neither did various members of the company's board of directors. One firefighter at the firehouse yesterday said a sign was posted suggesting that company members not talk to the news media.

Hyde, who is the city's division training chief, was busy yesterday after a fire cadet died in a training exercise, said Kevin Cartwright, a city fire department spokesman. Another spokesman for the department said that Hyde would not comment on the allegations, on the advice of his lawyer.

The lawyer, Peter S. O'Neill, who spoke to Hyde yesterday, said that the Visa card issue was resolved in 2004 and that there was no improper conduct on Hyde's part.

"In the last month or two he had brought to my attention that it had arisen again. He said, 'I already provided backup data to justify it,'" O'Neill said.

He described Hyde yesterday as a hardworking Baltimore fire official who was donating his expertise, time and efforts to the Riviera Beach volunteer station and had nothing to do with illicit activities there.

Volunteer fire companies are privately funded, nonprofit corporations, although they operate under the operational control of the county fire department. They are not audited and are governed by their own, member-appointed directors.

Riviera Beach is manned around the clock by two professional firefighters and two paramedics, and about 70 volunteers fill out the shifts.

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Hyde came from a long line of local firefighters, including both grandfathers and his father. In an interview with The Sun in October 2005, he said that his wife was a dispatcher for the Baltimore City Fire Department and his son was an Anne Arundel County paramedic-firefighter.

Hyde has repeatedly been honored for his work. He received his department's Heroic Service Award medal for rescue and recovery efforts in the March 2004 water taxi accident in Baltimore Harbor. Rep. C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger lauded him in November 2005 for his efforts on the Lady D and with the Hurricane Katrina cleanup. Baltimore magazine's award came earlier that year.

Hyde and the company became the subjects of a probe launched by then-county fire chief Ronald Blackwell in July, the same month that Hyde and a volunteer firefighter accused each other of assault at the firehouse. Both men later agreed to drop the charges.

Stokes took over the investigation when he was hired in December. Among his findings, read in a meeting Monday attended by more than 80 fire company members:

Minors were involved in sexual activity and drank alcohol on fire department property.

Officers did not take allegations of sexual harassment seriously.

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Fire company members responded to emergencies after drinking alcohol.

Firefighters viewed online pornography and had men's magazines including Maxim delivered to the station.

Fire response statistics had been falsified.

Hyde, Stokes reported, also threatened to retaliate against members who cooperated with the investigation and allegedly undermined the authority of Anne Arundel County fire officials.

Blackwell could not be reached for comment. Stokes was unavailable yesterday, said Michael Cox, a battalion chief and spokesman for the county fire department.

He said that in the investigation, "some allegations were brought forth that involved potential criminal activities," which were turned over to the Anne Arundel County Police Department. Lt. David Waltemeyer, a county police spokesman, confirmed that two investigations concerning Riviera Beach, one into finances, the other into the alleged sex offense, are under way, but said he could not elaborate.

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The board had begun to independently investigate Hyde's use of the company Visa card, said multiple sources close to that investigation. According to Jan. 16 board minutes read at Monday's meeting, directors had recovered bills showing purchases throughout the United States and Canada. When asked about these expenditures at the meeting, Hyde said he was given permission by a past board president, who has since died, to use it to pay for Baltimore City Fire Department travel expenses, according to people who attended the meeting.

Hyde said that after his 1996 bankruptcy, he could not acquire credit and needed the credit card. He told board members he had repaid all that money in cash, and they asked him to show receipts. When he said he had none, they voted to suspend him as chief until he could provide that documentation, the people at the meeting recounted.

O'Neill said yesterday that the board was rehashing a matter that had been "fully resolved in-house" in 2004.

"There was no improper conduct on his part," O'Neill said.

Company members said Hyde began mailing a letter to all company members last month, urging them to attend Monday's meeting and characterizing the board actions as unjustified.

Many of Hyde's family members rallied in his favor, people in attendance said, and when the votes were cast, three board members who had voted to suspend him and implement the county recommendations were ousted.

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bradley.olson@baltsun.com

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com


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