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MADISON - Former city of Superior Fire Chief Stephen A. Gotelaere, 60, appeared in Douglas County Circuit Court this morning and pled guilty to three felonies charged in a criminal complaint filed by the Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ).
Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said that the criminal complaint, also filed today, charges Gotelaere with two counts of felony theft and one count of misconduct in public office. The charges stem from a comprehensive investigation conducted by agents from the DOJ's Division of Criminal Investigation.
The plea agreement allows the State to ask the court to impose a sentence of up to nine years; including four years in prison followed by five years extended supervision, as well as five additional years of probation. Gotelaere has also agreed to pay full restitution, which the State claims is as much as $239,676. Gotelaere disputes about $13,000 of this amount.
According to the criminal complaint, beginning in 1999, Gotelaere, then the fire chief, conspired with the owner of the Superior fire department's main equipment supplier, Roger Otto, of Chetek, to submit invoices containing charges for equipment and supplies that in fact were never ordered or delivered. The complaint alleges that Otto prepared invoices that included both legitimate and false charges and that Gotelaere would tell Otto what to put in the invoices and how much Gotelaere would get back. As fire chief, Gotelaere was responsible for reviewing and approving invoices to the fire department for payment. After the city issued checks in payment for these false charges, the complaint alleges, Gotelaere and Otto would meet to divide the proceeds, with Gotelaere receiving most of the funds.
The embezzlements continued until May 2005, when Gotelaere retired following the discovery he had submitted a false travel voucher. The complaint also alleges that the embezzlement scheme first came to light when Tad Matheson, who was appointed as acting chief to succeed Gotelaere, discovered what appeared to be instances of double billing by Otto's company, Eddy Brothers Co. DOJ's subsequent investigation revealed the full scope of the scheme.
Gotelaere's false travel claims are the subject of a separate uncharged misconduct in public office offense that will be read-in at Gotelaere's sentencing for the court to consider in imposing sentence on the charged offenses.
Otto is being prosecuted separately in Barron County Circuit Court.
Douglas County Circuit Judge Michael T. Lucci, who is presiding over the case, accepted Gotelaere's pleas in court this morning and scheduled his sentencing for Friday, March 14, 2008 at 9:00 a.m.
"Public safety is a top priority of state and local government," Van Hollen said. "Citizens have a right to see that their public safety tax dollars are used for valuable government services. Public corruption like this has no place in Wisconsin. I am committed to making available Department of Justice investigators and prosecutors to ensure that this type of misconduct is appropriately punished and to seek the maximum amount of restitution to make the city and taxpayers whole."
"I appreciate the hard work that DOJ investigators and assistant attorneys general have devoted to this case," Van Hollen continued. "City officials cooperated fully with the investigation, and I know they are pleased that the investigation led to charges and that this case is close to full resolution."
The case is being prosecuted by Assistant Attorneys General Paul Barnett and Barbara Oswald as special prosecutors for Douglas County.