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Sparks fly at Howard annual meeting over possible conflict of interest

By LeAnn R. Ralph

TOWN OF HOWARD — At least several people who attended the Town of Howard’s annual meeting April 21 appeared to be quite perturbed.

Todd Wanish, who won the election April 7 for Supervisor 1, said, “We have nothing to do with it” in reference to his wife’s parents’ financial interests in the proposed 1,300 acre Albertville Valley Sand Mine.

Tom Zwiefelhofer, Supervisor 1 on the Howard Town Board who lost the election to Wanish, said once he found out about an e-mail that Heather Rothbauer-Wanish had received about the sand mine, he was obligated to bring it up to the Howard Town Board as a potential conflict of interest for Wanish as a town board member.

Dennis Dvoracek, incumbent Supervisor 2 who won the April 7 election, asked Wanish, Rothbauer-Wanish and Daniel Rothbauer if they had ever heard of insider trading and said that Rothbauer-Wanish’s parents had apparently named her as their agent in regard to receiving e-mails for them.

The Howard Town Board approved seeking a legal opinion about a possible conflict of interest  at the April 14 regular town board meeting.

“The town needs to check it out to be sure (about conflict of interest),” Zwiefelhofer said at the April 21 annual meeting.

People may think that Rothbauer-Wanish could give information from the e-mails to her husband and perhaps influence his vote on sand mine issues, Dvoracek said.

“If everything is good, why not check it out?” Zwiefelhofer said.

The situation could “have the appearance of an ethical problem,” especially if it was possible that Rothbauer-Wanish could perhaps someday inherit money, said Ken Schmitt, Town of Howard resident.

It appeared that Schmitt intended to say more on the subject but never got the chance.

Whether his daughter inherits any money is not anyone’s business, said Daniel Rothbauer.

Rothbauer said he wanted Zwiefelhofer to bring the issue to him but not to the town board.

Vernon Schindler, chair of the Town of Howard, was of the opinion that Zwiefelhofer should not have brought the issue to the attention of the town board.

“Many things came out that should not have come out,” Schindler said.

Zwiefelhofer reiterated that once he found out about the potential conflict of interest, he was obligated to bring it to the town board.

Wanish said he felt “blind sided” by the issue and that Zwiefelhofer should have talked to him first.

The Wanishs did not attend the April 14 Howard Town Board meeting and were reportedly away from the area at the time of the meeting.

Zwiefelhofer said he had called Wanish to talk about the e-mail that had been forwarded to him by another person who has a financial interest in the proposed Albertville Valley Sand Mine.

At one point in the discussion at the Howard annual meeting, multiple people were speaking, and someone mentioned that Rothbauer-Wanish receiving e-mails for her parents was no different than someone picking up mail out of a mailbox for someone who was gone on vacation.

Rothbauer-Wanish said her parents do not have a computer and do not have access to e-mail and that she is receiving e-mails for them pertaining to the proposed sand mine.

“It’s good sound policy (to check on potential conflicts of interest). If it’s not a big deal, then there is nothing to worry about,” Dvoracek said.

According to a November 2014 report about sand mine operations titled “Breaking the Rules for Profit” by the Land Stewardship Project, “Of the forty-seven frac sand companies currently operating in Wisconsin, twenty-four or 51% have seriously violated DNR regulations, manipulated local governments, or engaged in influence peddling and conflicts of interest.”

Rothbauer-Wanish wanted to know if Dvoracek was being investigated for a possible conflict of interest as well.

Dvoracek said that he was.

Dvoracek will be included in the legal opinion because at one time, he owned a company that had included Red Flint Group as a client.

Red Flint Group is a company associated with the Albertville Valley Sand Mine, although it is not entirely clear what role the company will play in developing the sand mine, loading facility and processing plant.

Paul Van Eijl, land acquisitions manager for Northern Sands, has been working on leasing land for the sand mine.

Town board members say Van Eijl told them he sold his interest in the sand mine to Red Flint Group, but Van Eijl’s name has reportedly been listed as the applicant with Chippewa County for the reclamation permit.

Howard Town Board members have gone on record in the past saying that they had expected Red Flint Group to be the applicant for the Albertville Valley Sand Mine.

The proposed Albertville Valley Sand Mine would be located along the western edge of the Town of Howard, a few miles southeast of Colfax.