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Business Observer Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021 7 months ago

Lawsuit: Fire district misused COVID-19 funds, fired whistleblower  

Kevin Nelmes had been with the Greater Naples Fire District since 2003.

NAPLES — An 18-year decorated veteran of the Greater Naples Fire District, Kevin Nelmes, is suing the department — alleging he was wrongfully fired after logging official complaints that the agency had misused potentially up to $1 million in pandemic relief funds.

Nelmes, a lieutenant and division chief of EMS for the district — and its firefighter of the year in 2017 — contends he made his superiors at the fire district aware of the issues in mid-April. The lawsuit, filed Sept. 30 in federal court in Fort Myers, states Nelmes “learned that the CARES Act monies received by the (district) had not been used for the designated purpose and that there was money unaccounted for.” The district was required to use those funds, the lawsuit says, “solely for the designated purpose of purchasing personal protective equipment and for personnel costs associated with COVID-19.”

Nelmes, according to the lawsuit, filed by Bonita Springs attorney Benjamin Yormak, signed a written compliant and sent it to a deputy chief, “attempting to stop the misappropriation of the CARES Act monies.”

The deputy chief, unnamed in the lawsuit, could have investigated or sought other corrective actions, the lawsuit contends. “However, (Nelmes’) deputy chief did not investigate the plaintiff’s complaint,” the lawsuit states. “Instead, just a week later after the plaintiff’s signed, written complaint attempting to stop the defendant’s misappropriation of CARES Act monies, the defendant opened an internal affairs investigation against the plaintiff, before ultimately terminating his employment.”

The lawsuit doesn’t specify how much money Nelmes’ says was allegedly misused by the department. The fire district received $1 million in federal CARES Act funding from Collier County, according to minutes from the district’s fire commissioners meeting held Dec. 8, 2020. “The initial payment was intended to supplement funding for staffing during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the minutes state. “The county has additionally awarded to the district an approximate $147,000 for direct reimbursement costs associated with the purchase of personal protective equipment. Staff has provided all requested documentation and is awaiting funding.”

The district had a budget of $33.96 million in 2020, according to its annual report, 95% of which comes from county property taxes. Reached on his cellphone, Fire District Chairman Kevin Gerrity, one of five elected commissioners that oversees the district, declined to comment, saying it was an active lawsuit. In an interview with the Business Observer, Naples Fire Chief J Nolan Sapp declined to comment on the lawsuit, referring legal questions to the district's attorney, Rey Velazquez with FordHarrison in Miami. Velazquez, in an email response to an Oct. 14 query, declined to comment, writing "this case was assigned to me yesterday and I have not even had an opportunity to review the complaint or discuss with my client."

Sapp did say he's proud of his department's dedication to serving the community. "I don't want this situation to take away from all the good work we do here," Sapp says. "There has been no reduction in service or lapse in service." 

Nelmes’ attorney, Yormak, didn’t return a phone call or text for comment. The lawsuit asks for a jury trial for Nelmes. He seeks compensatory damages, back pay, bonus and other missed benefits, temporary reinstatement of his job under whistleblower protections and more. The lawsuit doesn’t indicate any specific dollar amount Nelmes seeks.

Nelmes was named the department’s firefighter of the year in 2017, according to a March 2, 2017 statement from the district. Nelmes also won a Distinguished Public Service Award from the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce in 2018. The lawsuit states that prior to his termination, Nelmes “met and exceeded performance goals and always received very good to excellent performance reviews.”



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