County worker had long history of complaintsCarlton County transfer station worker Joanne Marie Wappes, 63, of Cloquet made her third appearance in Carlton County Court Wednesday, on the heels of Tuesday’s release by the county of a list of previous complaints issued against her during the course of her employment.
By: Jana Peterson, Pine Journal
Carlton County transfer station worker Joanne Marie Wappes, 63, of Cloquet made her third appearance in Carlton County Court Wednesday, on the heels of Tuesday’s release by the county of a list of previous complaints issued against her during the course of her employment. Wappes, appearing once again without an attorney, faces charges of theft of public funds and theft by swindle.
Wappes told Judge Robert Macaulay that she was planning to hire an attorney from the Twin Cities area, and the judge reset the hearing for two weeks, on Oct. 23.
Wappes is charged with felony theft of public funds and theft by swindle — of sums that allegedly could add up to more than $1 million, according to the criminal complaint and previous hearings — after an investigation by her supervisors and the Carlton County Sheriff’s Department revealed Wappes was allegedly manipulating the cash register at the transfer station. According to the criminal complaint, Wappes appeared to give some customers a false receipt for a 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 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.
The criminal investigation of Wappes came about after a customer — who brought waste to the transfer station on a day in March when Wappes wasn’t working — came to the zoning office and verbally complained about the full-time employee.
Heather Cunningham, county zoning and environmental services administrator and Wappes’ supervisor, initially responded by placing cameras at the transfer station, which then led to the criminal complaint, filed in September.
However, that wasn’t the first time customers had complained about the long-time transfer station employee. (Wappes worked as a vacation replacement landfill cashier for Carlton County from 1975 until August 1984, when she was hired as the full-time landfill cashier.)
A “complaint history” released by the county earlier this week revealed a total of 20 complaints about Wappes, running from April 1996 through August 2013.
Although there are legal limits on what information the county is allowed to release about employees, the complaint history lists the date of each complaint, whether or not it was resolved and what — if any — disciplinary action was taken.
While the list does not describe the nature of the complaints, it does reveal that from 1996 through July 2011, either there was no disciplinary action taken on any complaint or no resolution was noted in the file. The first time Wappes received any disciplinary action on the record was July 25, 2012, nine days after Cunningham took over the position from longtime zoning director Bruce Benson.
County Coordinator and Human Resources Director Dennis Genereau revealed Wednesday that the county has hired a private attorney to advise them on the matter, noting it was the first time in his tenure the county has dealt with credible allegations of theft. (Previous allegations of “theft of time” against county employees were investigated and no evidence was found, he said.)
“We are pursuing all civil and criminal options and we’ve hired legal representation to help us deal with all the civil aspects of this case,” Genereau said, explaining that it’s not unusual for a county to hire private counsel, given the potential magnitude of the case.
Genereau listed several reasons for hiring someone with experience in such matters, ranging from offering guidance in the release of data, having fresh eyes to look at the case and procedures in the county and “to make sure that the case is handled fairly and without bias, that the employee is not treated with favoritism or too harshly,” he said. Cunningham said she continues to work with the state and two different advisory bodies on procedures at the transfer station and possible changes to the pricing structure for residential customers.
Wappes remains on unpaid administrative leave and bailed out of jail.