County worker accused of swindling public fundsCarlton County transfer station worker Joanne Marie Wappes, 63, of Cloquet made her second appearance in Carlton County Court Wednesday morning on charges of theft of public funds and theft by swindle.
By: Jana Peterson, Pine Journal
Carlton County transfer station worker Joanne Marie Wappes, 63, of Cloquet made her second appearance in Carlton County Court Wednesday morning on charges of theft of public funds and theft by swindle.
During the Rule 8 hearing Wednesday, Carlton County Attorney Thom Pertler revealed that — since Wappes’ initial court appearance Friday when he told the court she had over $925,000 in various bank accounts — investigators had discovered $59,000 during a search of Wappes’ car and another bank account under Wappes’ name, containing an additional $139,000.
At that point, Wappes let out a loud exclamation in the courtroom, half humorous, half incredulous.
“The money just keeps stacking up,” said Pertler, who had stated Friday that the amount allegedly stolen by the Carlton County transfer station worker could be “as much as seven figures,” or over a million dollars.
Wappes appeared on her own Wednesday, without an attorney. She had been released from jail on Tuesday on pre-trial release and placed on intensive supervised probation. When Judge Robert Macaulay asked her about the status of her legal representation, she said she is “working on it” but hasn’t had time to finalize it.
According to the criminal complaint (which was written before Wappes’ house was searched and “piles of money” were discovered around the home), the Carlton County Sheriff’s Department learned July 10 that Wappes — who charged and collected fees for waste disposal at the gate of the transfer station — was allegedly stealing money. Wappes, who is on unpaid administrative leave from her job now, had worked at the transfer station since 1984.
Heather Cunningham, county zoning and environmental services administrator and Wappes’ supervisor, said her department received a verbal complaint about Wappes in March.
“While the complaint was not written as required per county policy, the verbal complaint provided too much detail to ignore,” she said. “I responded by placing cameras at the Transfer Station, which led to the criminal complaint.”
After Cunningham reviewed the video footage, she alerted law enforcement about the alleged theft and clearly suspicious behavior contained in the video that involved Wappes manipulating the cash register and handing out false receipts to customers.
According to the complaint, investigators discovered that Wappes would allegedly give some customers a false receipt for the transaction and later substitute a correct cash register tape that then resulted in a seemingly accurate tally for each day, even though the actual number of cash-paying customers who used the transfer facility was greatly in excess of the actual number of transactions recorded on the “legitimate” cash register tape.
Investigators reviewed various days of the surveillance video and “on any given day, at any given hour, the defendant could be observed manipulating the cash register using the method described to steal public funds from Carlton County,” the complaint stated.
After gaining search warrants, investigators identified numerous bank accounts owned by the defendant and obtained information regarding her wages, and confirmed she was depositing “great sums” of money into various accounts and CDs that greatly exceeded every penny of wages that she had earned from her sole source of income through Carlton County. The largest bank account, the complaint stated, contained more than $925,000. Although the other bank accounts have substantially less money, investigators were unable to verify any other source of income other than Wappes’ job at the county’s transfer station.
Investigators also conducted sting operations whereby they went to the transfer station and used marked large cash denominations to pay for their loads. Upon examining the bank bag at the end of the day, the bills used by investigators were not accounted for, nor were they deposited into the bank account used by the transfer station.
According to the criminal complaint, Wappes has deposited more than $30,000 into bank accounts for this year, but has earned only $17,500. For 2012, Wappes deposited approximately $45,000 into various bank accounts but earned approximately $28,000. As far back as 2007, deposits exceeded the defendant’s gross income by $63,000.
Carlton County Sheriff Kelly Lake said the investigation by her department and assisted by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) and the Minnesota branch of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is still underway.
“We have volumes of information to go through,” Lake said, explaining the paper trail of bank records and other records will take time, especially considering that Wappes had worked at the transfer station since 1984. “We will take our time and make sure we can recoup as much money as we can for the county and its citizens.
“We take this very seriously as a county,” she continued. “We are doing our due diligence in investigating this matter.”
Wappes’ next court date was set for Oct. 9 at 9 a.m.
Transfer station open as usual
Transfer station customers need not worry — the Carlton County transfer station at 1950 Highway 210 (3/4 mile west of Interstate 35) is open for business as usual. Regular hours through Oct. 31 are 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The household hazardous waste facility in the same location is open Tuesdays and Saturdays from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Cunningham said she is working to make the pricing at the transfer station more transparent, so customers better understand what they’re being charged for.
A key issue is the fact that the transfer station charges household waste by apparent volume rather than weight, because the scales aren’t sensitive enough to register small changes in weight (like they do for commercial garbage vendors). Instead employees are instructed to use established national standards to convert volume to an estimate of waste. WLSSD Material Recovery Center and St. Louis County use volume based pricing as well.
Cunningham explained that fees for household waste are determined by the size of the bag containing the waste, but any amount greater than two bags is charged by the approximate size of the vehicle bringing the waste to the transfer station, explained Cunningham, who started the job about a year ago.
“In the end, it’s often a judgment call,” she explained. “What’s a couch? Is that a carload?”
The county zoning and environmental services administrator is also consulting with the state auditor’s office to determine what other steps can be taken to prevent fraud.
It’s not the first time the county has worked with the state auditor’s office, she said, noting that in 2010 the auditor’s office recommended the county have their full-time transfer station employee take a week or two off at time and compare receipts.
“There was no significant difference,” Cunningham said, reiterating her commitment to making the transfer station secure “so something like this never happens again.”
County Coordinator Dennis Genereau also stressed how seriously the county is taking the case and issues raised.
“I apologize to the citizens and county employees that have to deal with this and I want to make sure everyone understands this is being thoroughly investigated and handled in a fair way,” he said. “This was taken very seriously from the get-go.”
Pine Journal publisher Wendy Johnson contributed to this story.