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Former SWCD employee faces criminal, civil cases

WINDOM -- A former Cottonwood Soil and Water Conservation District employee is facing a string of criminal charges and a civil suit after allegedly stealing more than $140,000 and altering the records or accounts of the public entity over an appr...

WINDOM - A former Cottonwood Soil and Water Conservation District employee is facing a string of criminal charges and a civil suit after allegedly stealing more than $140,000 and altering the records or accounts of the public entity over an approximately four-year period.  

Renee L. Harnack, 59, of Windom, is facing three counts of theft and one count of embezzlement in a criminal case filed Jan. 26.

The charges allege that Harnack - who was employed as the administrative assistant - issued herself 158 checks without authorization from Feb. 22, 2013 to Sept. 8, 2017. She therefore obtained $141,471.33 from the government agency, which is funded from a combination of state and federal funds.

During this time period, Harnack - who was responsible for accounting, bookkeeping and paying bills - also allegedly altered, with the intent to defraud, the records or accounts of the SWCD, the complaint details.

Law enforcement learned of Harnack’s alleged behavior in September 2017.

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According to the criminal complaint, Harnack’s co-worker went to file a note for Harnack in a file normally stored in her desk. At that time, the co-worker allegedly found a check register from 2013 with notes referencing the alteration of invoice amounts in Harnack’s desk. There was also evidence indicating Harnack altered SWCD board minutes and financial statements on the co-worker’s computer, the complaint continues.

The co-worker reviewed statements from the SWCD’s checking account and learned that there were checks issued to Harnack listed as “void.” Some of the bank statements also appeared to have been altered, by taping an overly on the statement and photocopying it, the complaint states.  

During an October interview at her residence, Harnack admitted that she had forged another Cottonwood SWCD employee’s signature to checks without authorization because she had been having trouble making ends meet. She also acknowledged tracking her thefts on documents located as the SWCD, the complaint continues.

The theft may have occurred unnoticed for years because Harnack was also responsible for preparing year-end statements. At that time, Harnack said she would change the invoices to account for the discrepancy that would have shown up otherwise.

Harnack’s first appearance in Cottonwood District Court is scheduled for Feb. 27.

If convicted of either of the two more serious theft charges, Harnack could face a maximum sentence of 20 years imprisonment, a $100,000 fine or both.

Following suit The criminal charges follow a civil suit filed Oct. 31, 2017 by Cottonwood SWCD attorneys.

The suit, which claims the SWCD incurred damages in excess of $150,000 due to Harnack’s alleged behavior, seeks $150,000 plus damages “three times the amount of actual damages.”

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The civil suit also lists Harnack’s husband, Tom Harnack, claiming that the embezzled funds were held jointly or otherwise possessed by him. The suit further claims that Tom Harnack knew, or should have known, that some of the funds he benefited from were obtained illegally or unjustly.

The civil suit has been scheduled for a three-day jury trial to commence on Nov. 14, 2018.

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