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Cottonwood County parks workers charged

WINDOM -- Stemming from an investigation that began in August 2010, two former Cottonwood County employees, who have since retired, are now being charged with felony-level failure to pay over state funds and gross misdemeanor-level public employee misconduct.

Former Cottonwood County Parks Director Carl Michael Hanson and former Environmental Administrator Marlene Smith are both scheduled to make a court appearance Monday in Cottonwood County District Court.

According to the complaint, a deputy with the Cottonwood County Sheriff's Office was instructed to investigate some concerns about the pop machine located at Talcot Park and the firewood and ice being supplied to campers there.

The county auditor, the complaint states, expressed concerns that money was being taken in and paid out without being properly monitored by the auditor's office.

The auditor had allegedly been told by Hanson the company who provided the pop handled the money directly -- not his office.

The company, upon questioning from the auditor, said they stock the machine and leave an invoice, later receiving a money order as payment.

The deputy also learned the ice company that has delivered to the park for years was being paid by money order.

The auditor also learned money collected from selling ice and firewood -- both of which were supposed to be free to campers -- was never turned in or reported to the auditor's office.

In August 2010, the county board minutes reflect a decision to begin charging a fee for firewood -- $3 per bundle.

At the park, the deputy spoke with an employee who said campers are charged $4 per bundle for firewood and also charged a fee for ice, depending on how many pounds were involved.

Money collected from campers and from the pop machine was put in a bag and turned over to Smith, the employee reported.

When the deputy spoke with Smith, she allegedly stated she had been told to pay for the pop with a money order when she started in 1994, and had been doing so ever since.

She admitted some money from pop paid for ice and vice versa, but that money was kept separate from camping fees.

The money from wood sales was sent to the auditor's office with the camping fees. Prior to 2010, wood was not sold, she said.

When asked if Hanson knew how the ice and pop money was handled, Smith indicated uncertainty, saying she was sure he knew, or she thought he knew.

She said when Hanson asked her the previous year if there was money left over, she had told him there was not.

When the deputy mentioned things didn't add up, she allegedly said they had probably not kept adequate records, and if there was a profit, it was slight.

When asked if the money was used to pay for food for the office, she said it was. She allegedly stated everyone in the office had a share in the blame, but if the profits went toward food, Hanson would have authorized it.

While a deputy talked to Smith, the sheriff spoke with Hanson, who initially said he did not know Smith was paying for ice and pop with money orders.

Later he allegedly admitted he knew the pop money was not going through the auditor's office, but continued to deny he knew about the ice sales not going through proper channels.

Hanson initially stated he thought they were just breaking even on ice and pop, but later admitted he knew a profit was being made.

He also stated he was aware profits were being used to fund picnics, pizza and a restaurant meal at a Christmas party, and said he assumed some profits had been used to augment potluck parties.

Hanson allegedly told the sheriff he knew the pop company had not handled the money from the machine in prior years, and admitted he had not told the board and the auditor the truth.

It was an oversight on his part, he said, that he had not made sure the money was going to the auditor's office.

He also said the people from his office had purchased pop on sale and used it to fill the machine.

Hanson, who has been employed through the county since 1997, was the department head in the Environmental Office until August 2010, when he was removed from that office.

An investigation beginning in December 2009 alleged another parks employee, Gregory Johnson, was removed from his position after being charged with theft of public funds, presenting false claims to a public body and misconduct of a public employee.

Johnson is accused of falsifying a timecard to state he was at work when he was actually hunting out of state.

The investigation started at the request of a county commissioner, who was reviewing questionable expenses and noted what he considered an excessive amount of fuel charges under Johnson's name.

Johnson is scheduled to go on trial for the charges in September.