Monday, June 3, 2013

Former Shorewood, Wisconsin School Secretary Stole $310 Thousand In Special Ed Funds, Feds Say


A former Shorewood School District secretary has been charged with embezzling more than $300,000 in federal special education funds to buy TVs, household items and vacations for her family.

Donna Sternke was charged this week in federal court with issuing unauthorized checks totaling $310,263 over 13 years — from January 1998 to June 2011. In June 2011, the district discovered the unexplained purchase of gift cards for Kalahari Resort in Wisconsin Dells, and she was allowed to resign from her position, according to documents filed in federal court.

In October 2012, she admitted to federal investigators to stealing the money. And this week she reached a plea agreement with prosecutors.

If convicted, Sternke could face a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment. Under the plea agreement, Sternke will pay $310,263 in restitution to the school district.

According to court documents:

Sternke worked in the district's Instructional Services and Special Education Department, handling purchasing for the department, making use of federal Individual with Disabilities Education Act grants in the sum of $632,362.

Special education teachers would provide Sternke with purchase orders, which she would enter into the district's computer system for review and approval. Through that computer system, Sternke would enter bogus invoices for items she purchased for personal use, according to the documents.

In one case, she used the district's computer system to create a bogus $1,564.49 purchase order for American TV. She falsely wrote in the invoice, the purchase was for a HP laptop, when Sternke actually purchased a 50-inch TV console and 37-inch Sony TV for herself.

After preparing and submitting a bogus invoice, Sternke would pick up a check from the business office — not a normal payment process — and typically mailed the check to the vendor, but would occasionally use the check to make purchases at various stores including Menards, Pennys, Target, Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Kohl's.

The document also says Sternke used the funds to buy vacations, and purchase personal items for her family, often through gift cards.

Additionally, Sternke admitted to agents that she prepared false purchase orders in fall 2010 for products totaling $8,000. When the district issued checks, she used them to make payments on her personal credit cards.

Shorewood School District Business Manager Mark Boehlke was not available for comment Friday, however, he did tell the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that Sternke was hired by the district in 1979 and is not currently receiving any retirement benefits from the district.

Boehlke couldn't explain how no red flags were raised over the 13 years Sternke was allegedly embezzling funds.

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