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Ashippun saddened by stolen church funds

Concerns rise after clerk's spouse probed for taking church $

Jan. 30, 2013

Town of Ashippun - The pastor said there is "a general sense of sadness" felt by the congregation of Zion Lutheran Church following news that a member is being investigated for taking church money.

The Rev. Bob Thays said he is trying to make things as easy as possible for all involved and has already met with parishioner Jim Schlieve.

Schlieve said he had no comment Wednesday when asked about reports that he took church funds.

The amount has not been disclosed, but Dodge County District Attorney Kurt Klomberg said the Sheriff's Department is investigating the matter. No charges have been filed against Schlieve.

"We all feel a great deal of empathy," said Thays. The pastor said the matter will be discussed further at the church's annual meeting on Feb. 10.

The news became public this week, because Schlieve is married to Ashippun Town Clerk Vickie Schlieve and she wanted to make it clear that no town funds were in jeopardy. The town hall was packed on Monday for the special meeting of the Ashippun Town Board to address concerns regarding the town's finances.

In a statement to residents at the meeting, Town Chairman Steve Panozzo said a "significant" amount of church money was involved, but it did not appear any town money was at risk. After much discussion, the town board voted unanimously to let her return to work.

"I have been made aware that the spouse of this employee has admitted to taking funds improperly from a church in the Town of Ashippun. The amount taken was significant. The employee has advised me that they did not know this was occurring and I believe this person," Panozzo said.

Thays confirmed that Jim Schlieve had admitted to the theft of church funds.

Panozzo said he was made aware of the matter on Jan. 20 and the clerk voluntarily offered to remove herself and go on leave while the town's accounting firm, Johnson Block, conducted an audit of the town's finances. Panozzo said no red flags came up after an initial audit.

But Panozzo quickly went into action after the matter was brought to his attention and he immediately engaged Town Attorney John Macy and Johnson Block. There were apparent concerns because Schlieve's husband regularly attends Town Board meetings. Panozzo also said he has experience in finance, and his wife would often ask him simple questions to get a second opinion about accounting for the town.

"He has experience handling money. They spoke the same language, and she would ask small questions within a few dollars. At this point she had no reason to mistrust him, and neither did I," said Panozzo.

Vickie Schlieve said she could not comment on the matter.

Macy said he thought the Town Board was well-prepared to handle the situation and was ready to address concerns residents might have Monday. "They had done their homework and were ready to answer questions. From my perspective, it was a great meeting that had a large turnout with lots of good comments," said Macy.

The town attorney said although the situation could have serious consequences, he felt it was blown out of proportion. "They wanted to know his (Jim Schlieve's) role with her duties, but in the end we had more of a sense of what was going on, and there was talk of how much involvement he had and to what extent, and it wasn't significant," said Macy.

Panozzo said it would be hard to commit fraud with town funds because he signs every check. He said two popular types of fraud are using checks fraudulently or through wire transfers, adding the town doesn't deal with wire transfers.

"I think calmer heads prevailed," Panozzo said, agreeing with Macy there was not a significant danger to the town.

The town chairman said that Johnson Block will return with cost estimates for a more-thorough audit. He said it could cost about $150 an hour, or even up to $5,000. He added the town is actually on the eve of its annual audit required by law.

"Based on what we know, (Macy and Johnson Block) firms have advised me that a more-detailed look at our books may not be necessary. But we still want feedback on this," Panozzo said. The item will be on the next Town Board agenda for discussion, he said.

While Schileve voluntarily took a leave of absence after she discovered the situation herself last week, she returned to work Tuesday under the condition that her husband cannot be at Town Hall unless for a public meeting, Panozzo said.

"The majority of people voiced their opinion to have her return, and the Town Board voted unanimously to have her return.

"I think there's no reason to believe that Vickie did anything wrong or even knew anything was going on," Panozzo said.

No charges have been filed as of press time regarding the thefts from the church, according to court records.

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