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Ash convicted of felony theft

The former director of the city of Waupaca’s Park and Recreation Department appeared in court Thursday, April 21, and entered a plea of no contest to felony theft.

Jim Ash, 47, Waupaca, was charged and convicted on the same day as part of a plea agreement with the district attorney’s office.

Under Wisconsin’s bifurcated sentencing law, Ash faces a maximum term of 5 years in prison.

He is scheduled to appear in court for sentencing June 29. The prosecution and defense counsel are still trying to determine how much restitution Ash will need to pay.

Ash is accused of stealing nearly $150,000 from the city since April 15, 2005.

Ash resigned as the rec director in May 2010, after working in that position for 20 years.

At the time, Ash told the County Post that he resigned for personal reasons.

“I’m not going anywhere. I just want to do something else,” he said in 2010. “I have some ideas. I just want to move on.”

However, in a May 12 letter to City Administrator Henry Veleker, Ash wrote, “I realize that my recent actions have created a situation where my ability to lead the Park and Recreation Department has been seriously affected and that I violated a number of workplace rules. Therefore, I agree to resign my position as Park and Recreation director effective immediately.”

Also on May 12, Veleker sent Ash a letter indicating that the city was offering him an opportunity to resign “in lieu of termination.” Veleker’s letter indicates that the city “agrees to make no public statements abut the specific details leading to your resignation.”

“If you choose to resign,” according to Veleker’s letter, “you will be able to keep your employment history intact. Your resignation would also be one in good standing, which will make you eligible to receive accrued vacation (180 hours @ $27.64/hr or $4,975.20); floating holiday (13 hours @ $27.64/hr or $359.32) and sick pay (805.50 hours @ $27.64/hr or $22,264.02).”

Mayor Brian Smith told the County Post Thursday that city officials initially suspected that Ash had taken funds from the softball association, for which he was treasurer.

Smith said a city employee notified him of possible theft and the city began an internal investigation.

According to a statement from the city, distributed at the courthouse Thursday, “At the time of his resignation the extent of the theft was not known. His lack of cooperation in providing information at the time and his inability to effectively lead the department led city officials to offer resignation in lieu of termination.”

Ash has been the subject of an ongoing investigation for nearly a year. City staff and the police have been reviewing invoices and checking accounts, and contacting vendors and individuals, businesses and organizations that made donations to recreational projects over the past six years.

Waupaca Police Sgt. Brian Hoelzel became involved in the investigation after meeting with Smith and Veleker on June 23, 2010. They reported recently discovering that funds from several of the recreational organizations were being funneled through a Waupaca Recreation Participants Association account. It was not a city account.

Smith told Hoelzel that he had reviewed the check register from the account and learned that a large number of checks had been made out to Ash’s wife.

According to the criminal complaint. “It appears all the checks issued to Lisa Ash were forged.”

Ash reportedly told police that his wife was unaware that he was making checks out to her.

Many of the checks purportedly were to reimburse Ash for expenses he incurred on behalf of the city.

For example, on April 8, 2010, a $3,400 check from the association account was deposited into Ash’s personal checking account. The check’s memo line read, “ASA Team Insurance 34 teams.” City officials, however, were unable to find any records of ASA insuring any of the teams. The city had paid Van Dyke Insurance $545 in 2006 and 2007 and $565 in 2008 and 2009 to insure the American Legion teams.

When Hoelzel contacted ASA, the company had no record of insuring any league teams in Waupaca and the cost for insuring 34 teams for one year would have been about $680.

The same day that the $3,400 association check was deposited into Ash’s personal account, Ash sent a $3,400 electronic payment from his account to American Express.

On April 6, 2009, a $2,320 association check went into Ash’s personal account. The memo line of the check read, “Legion Umpire 2009 Reimbursement.” However, on June 17, 2009, the city paid an invoice of $2,305 for Legion baseball umpire fees.

In January 2006, numerous donations for batting cages at Swan Park were deposited into the Waupaca Recreation Participants account. However, the city was invoiced and paid for the items that spring.

On Sept. 23, 2009, a $3,000 check from the Waupaca Little League Association was deposited into the Waupaca Recreation Participants account. The purpose of the Little League donation was to help pay for lights at the fourth field at Swan Park.

That same day, a $1,545 association check was deposited into Ash’s personal checking account. The check’s memo line read “Badger Sports.” However, investigators found no record of Ash ordering any items from Badger Sports. And by the end of 2009, there was only $65 remaining in the association’s account.

In 2009, the association account apparently reimbursed Ash $10,432 for purchases from Sam’s Club. That same year, the city reimbursed Parks Superintendent Russ Montgomery $1,859 for purchases from Sam’s Club.

Montgomery told Hoelzel that he made nearly all the Sam’s Club purchases himself in order to stock the concessions stand at Swan Park. He said Ash occasionally went to Sam’s Club with him, but was not responsible for buying many of the items.

Working with City Treasurer Jean Peterson, Hoelzel found 30 suspect checks totaling $24,538 in 2005, 37 suspect checks totaling $31,710 in 2006, 18 checks totaling $18,160 in 2007, 38 checks totaling $29,347 in 2008, 36 checks totaling $37,308 in 2009, and six checks totaling $8,759 in 2010.

On April 12, 2011, Hoelzel concluded his investigation by interviewing Ash. He asked Ash why he had resigned in 2010.

Ash reportedly responded that he did not like the direction the city was going and that he had been accused of taking $400 out of the Parks and Rec till.

Ash eventually provided a written statement to Hoelzel, saying that he had been writing checks to his wife from the association’s account since 2006 or 2007. He said his wife did not know about the checks and that he did this to cover his personal finances.

“When I could I would pay back the money in the account from tax returns, tax rebates, loans, credit cards, etc. I was completely aware of how much I was borrowing and not sure how much I was paying back,” Ash said in his statement. “There are not enough ways to say how sorry I am to the community and to my family.”

At the courthouse Thursday, Smith said the city will be seeking more than $150,000 in restitution. He indicated that the experience has caused the city to review its policies.

Among the changes, the city has reviewed all verbal arrangements with outside recreational organizations and replaced them with written agreements. The city has changed the way cash is handled from over-the-counter sales.

The city has also hired two office personnel and a recreation program specialist to ensure that all funds go to the right programs and to reinvigorate the way the recreational services are delivered.

“We’re doing things differently to avoid this happening again in the future,” Smith said.

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