ABC 6 Investigates The Money Trail: Wabasha County Grant Money Violation

Updated: 05/16/2014 8:45 AM
Created: 04/27/2014 9:04 PM
By: Steph Crock

(ABC 6 NEWS) -- The State of Minnesota has wrapped up an investigation on Wabasha County, saying they violated the use of tax payer money.

After conducting a $4,000 dollar investigation, Minnesota wants Wabasha County to pay back more than $115,000 in grant money that was used for clean water projects. The funds were part of a legacy grant, using your tax payer dollars. The state says it has enough evidence to prove a whole series of violations, something the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil hasn't seen since the mid 90's. ABC 6 has been investigating how this happened and who should be held accountable as part of our "Follow the Money Trial" series.

Julie Porcher grew up in Wabasha County but didn’t become fully engulfed in county affairs until now, when she heard about the feedlot grants issued to the county in 2011. "When I was at the meetings, we knew there were closed door meetings because they would adjourn to them and we'd hear things like ‘feedlot money’ and ‘grant money’…" said Porcher.

Wabasha County was given $115,000 in state money to bring several feedlots up to clean water standards. "We first started looking into Wabasha County and how they are managing their grant funds in the fall of 2013," said Dave Weirens with the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources. It's the board’s responsibility to ensure the integrity of those state funds. In following its standard protocol, board members uncovered something they say they haven’t seen in more than a decade. "The evidence we've collected indicates a whole series of violations," said Weirens.

“There clearly was some wrong doing, probably on the part of a lot of people, how this was handled originally. Does it rise to criminal level? Probably," said Wabasha County Commissioner Dave Harms.

“The tax payer was going to pay for someone else's dishonesty," said Porcher.

It's not necessarily that the projects weren't completed. We're told farmers did receive payment, but it’s how the county went about it. "These feedlots, well one of them, was too large to qualify so he wrote down less animals," explained Porcher.

"They probably signed off where they shouldn't have but somebody approved the payment of that cash," said Harms.

To receive the grant, the County Feedlot Officer had to sign off on multiple reports proving the feedlots' eligibility and completion of grant requirements. “They used words like 'signed the land owners name,' they didn't use the word forgery but they described it," said Porcher.

That same County Feedlot Officer, who signed the documents, resigned after this was all said and done and we were unable to locate him. Not even the current Chair of the Wabasha County Board of Commissioners knows where he is. "I have no idea," said Wabasha County Commissioner and Board Chair, Donald Springer.

"Pretty much when the grant money was spent, he decided to leave," said Porcher.

"It was a grant funded position and the funds dried up, so he was going to go away anyhow, but I don't know if that was coincidental or if that was planned," said Harms.

The next person in line to approve those documents is no longer working for the county either. The mess now sits on the laps of the current county commissioners and the Wabasha County Attorney. “We've identified issues that are in that compliance report and forwarded those to the county attorney's office and that's really their job to take that further investigation into those issues," said Weirens.

We tried to contact the Wabasha County Attorney on several occasions, but have still gotten no response. Still, the state says the county has to pay up. "We are requesting and are expecting Wabasha County to repay those grant funds," said Weirens.

The county board has come up with a corrective action plan, but Springer says he still hopes they won't have to pay back all the money. "Even though maybe not every 'I' was dotted and 'T' was crossed, we believe those two projects did improve water quality in Wabasha County," said Springer.

However, the state says…"If you spend more money before the valid grant agreement, those costs don't count," said Weirens. As far as the state is concerned, the investigation is complete. It's now up to the county to make the next move.

"The first letter that came out said they have 60 days to repay back the $115,000 and on went the meetings for another year," said Porcher.

We asked the county, what's the hold-up? "It's my opinion that it's taken so long because the former board majority had terminated the position of county administrator and that slowed the process down," said Springer.

Others, who've been in those closed door meetings, disagree. "As a board we've had very little discussion on the matter," said Harms.

"It's been a very political battle and they want this to drag on, in my opinion, and they want to bring as much attention to it as possible," said Springer. He went on to say, "I just want to assure everyone that Wabasha County is working diligently to minimize any liability to the county, taxpayers, and citizens in general."

Still, some tax payers, like Julie Porcher, say it's a little too late for apologies. "Your reading comprehension doesn't have to be great to understand that that should not have happened," said Porcher.

The Board of Water and Soil Resources tells us they have agreed on that corrective action plan, but sent out another letter to the county this past week still requesting they pay back the grant funds.

Minnesota is asking Wabasha County to pay back over $115,000 in taxpayers' money.