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Parks employee charged

WINDOM -- A Cottonwood County Environmental Office employee under investigation for gas expense charges and time card claims was suspended without pay effective Wednesday. The suspension will remain in place until further action is pursued by the Cottonwood County Commissioners following a hearing scheduled at 1 p.m. Sept. 8 in the commissioner's room.

Gregory Gilmore Johnson, 48, of Windom, is now facing felony charges of attempted theft of public funds in a criminal case that will proceed through Watonwan County to avoid conflict of interest. The summons, which orders Johnson to appear in Watonwan County court Tuesday, is signed by Judge Jeffrey Flynn, who normally presides in Nobles County.

Johnson is listed on the Cottonwood County Environmental Office website as Assistant and Parks Manager. He also filed in June to run for the district 3 seat against current Cottonwood County Commissioner Chair Tom White.

The criminal complaint states the Cottonwood County Sheriff's Office was asked in December 2009 to investigate questionable expenses made by Johnson. A deputy met with Commissioner Gary Sorenson, who had been reviewing warrants and noticed hand-written receipts, including what he considered an excessive amount of gas charges. In a report presented to the board Aug. 3, the deputy reported more than $6,000 in fuel had been charged by Johnson between January and November 2009.

According to the report, expense warrants are approved by Environmental Office Administrator Michael Hanson, then turned over to the county auditor's office for review. The warrants are then turned over to the county board chair for approval of payment. Sorenson was chair in 2009.

Hanson told the deputy during an interview in January that he is Johnson's supervisor, and it is Johnson's duty to maintain and oversee eight Cottonwood County parks, but the bulk of his time is spent at Talcot Park. The department uses several vehicles and also purchases bulk diesel and fuel for chainsaws, mowers and a tractor. Hanson thought Johnson's gas average per month of $562 was high, but when Johnson was questioned, he estimated the monthly fuel charges at about $1,000.

In March, Sorenson told the deputy Johnson may have taken vacation time in November 2009 that was not accounted for. He passed on a request from the board that Johnson's time cards for 2009 be checked, and gave the deputy the name of a man who had seen Johnson on a hunting trip in Missouri on days he claimed to be at work -- and for which he had also received overtime.

A review of Johnson's time card showed he had taken a sick day Nov. 13, 2009, then worked regular hours Nov. 16 through Nov. 20. In addition to the regular hours, the time card claimed two hours of overtime Nov. 19.

The deputy interviewed several people from the Windom area who allegedly saw Johnson in Missouri during those dates. Information from the Missouri Department of Conservation showed Johnson had purchased a deer hunting permit at approximately 2 p.m. Nov. 13.

During an interview, Johnson allegedly stated he had been in Missouri during the dates in question, but did not put vacation time on his time card. He told the deputy it "was an honest mistake" and that he would not try to lie or steal from the county. He allegedly stated he did not remember when the time card was filled out.

Both Johnson and Hanson stated they were not sure why the mistake was not caught.

Johnson is charged in Cottonwood County District Court with theft by check, attempted theft of public funds and public employee-make false document.

During the Aug. 3 meeting, the commissioner's board voted to remove Hanson from the department head position in the Environmental Office, but will allow him to continue his other duties during a six-month probation period. According to the meeting minutes, a letter of reprimand will be placed in his file and his salary reduced.

At the Aug. 10 meeting, the board voted unanimously to request that the county attorney prepare a hearing notice for Johnson for disciplinary action that could include dismissal. That date was originally set for Wednesday, but was later changed to Sept. 8.

At both meetings during the discussion of Johnson and the investigation, White stepped aside and let another commissioner preside over the meeting to avoid any conflict of interest, as White and Johnson are running for the commissioner seat in the upcoming November election.