By LeAnn R. Ralph
MENOMONIE — A Dunn County judge has found the treasurer for the Town of New Haven guilty of an ethics violation connected to sending out campaign literature with tax receipts being issued to township residents.
Judge Rod Smeltzer found Laura Ulrich guilty following a court trial November 20 and assessed a fine of $150.
In a court trial, there is no jury, and the judge listens to all of the testimony and deliberates over the question of innocence or guilt.
[emember_protected] Ulrich was represented by attorney Katie J. Bosworth, and Dunn County Assistant District Attorney Andrew Maki was the prosecutor.
Marvin Prestrud, chair of the Town of New Haven, was called as the state’s first witness in the civil lawsuit.
Bosworth requested all of the witnesses be sequestered in the hallway both before and after their testimony.
Ulrich, 52, was accused in the civil complaint of using her public position as treasurer to send out campaign advertising with the tax receipts to promote herself in the April 4 election.
According to the civil complaint, the campaign advertising was sent out between January 15 and February 1 with the tax receipts to 177 people who own property in the Town of New Haven in violation of Wisconsin statute 19.59.
Prestrud testified he became aware of the situation when he received an e-mail from Diane Duerst, clerk for the Town of New Haven.
Duerst said she had been contacted by people who were unhappy about the mailing, he said.
When Bosworth asked if Prestrud had filed a complaint with Dunn County, Prestrud acknowledged he had contacted the Dunn County Sheriff’s Department but emphasized he had asked for an investigation and had not filed a complaint.
Duerst also was called as a witness for the state.
Bosworth objected to items Duerst was prepared to carry to the witness stand with her, so Duerst handed them off to a member of the audience to hold.
When asked what those items were, Duerst said she had been carrying a copy of the “Town Officers Handbook” and copies of e-mail messages.
Duerst testified she became aware of the mailings in the town tax receipts when she received an e-mail message at 12:30 p.m. Friday, February 3, from town residents Ken Seguine and Jay Gilbertson.
A copy of the campaign literature was not included in the first e-mail, but Duerst said she had received an attached copy by e-mail later that day.
Duerst said she had called Ulrich about the campaign materials but Ulrich said she had “looked it up” and it was okay to do.
Mailing out receipts for tax payments is viewed as one of the duties of the town treasurer, and the Town of New Haven pays for the stamps, postage, paper and envelopes.
Even though Duerst and Prestrud are both residents of the Town of New Haven, neither of them received campaign material in their tax receipts.
According to the civil complaint, Ulrich said she had sent the letter to 177 people and that she had paid for both the postage and the envelopes, with a check for $21.24 to the Dunn County Treasurer’s office for the envelopes and had paid for $122.50 in postage stamps with her credit card.
When Ken Seguine was called as a witness by the prosecution, Bosworth objected to allowing his testimony because Seguine was not included in the statement of the case.
Maki said he had provided a list of witnesses, but when he checked the list, saw that he had inadvertently left Seguine off the list.
Judge Smeltzer allowed Seguine’s testimony, and Maki said the purpose for his testimony was as one of the residents who had received the mailing.
Seguine described the mailing as a “vote for me” solicitation stapled to the tax receipt.
Jay Gilbertson, another witness called by the state, also testified that a note from Ulrich had been stapled to the tax receipt.
Jason Stalker with the Dunn County Sheriff’s Department said he had received a complaint about “voting propaganda.”
The deputy testified he had contacted Ulrich a week or a week and a half after he had received the complaint, and Ulrich said she had included a personal note with the tax receipts to some of the town residents but because she had paid for the mailing, she had not violated anything.
Ulrich testified she is employed as a pharmacy technician with a hospital in Amery.
She was appointed as treasurer for the Town of New Haven in 2012 but has since won elections for the town treasurer position.
Ulrich testified that in addition to paying for the postage and the envelopes herself, she had typed the note on her own computer and had used her own printer and ink to produce the notes.
Bosworth entered as exhibits copies of three articles published in local newspapers about what, at that point, was an alleged violation of the ethics code.
Maki filed the civil complaint in Dunn County Circuit Court March 27.
Ulrich said she believed the newspaper articles had hurt her in the election and had cost her votes.
Ulrich did, in fact, win the April 4 election against challenger Renee Bartz and received 116 votes to 85 votes for Bartz.
Ulrich testified as treasurer, she is paid $5,500 per year, pre-tax, and during the tax season, she works perhaps 30 to 35 hours per week at the treasurer’s position. For the remainder of the year, she puts in somewhere around eight or 10 hours per week.
Ulrich said her job as a pharmacy technician pays fairly well and that her husband also has a good job. In addition, the Ulrichs have a beef and crop farm, and she said she had not run for treasurer’s position for the money, but rather, as a way to serve her community.
After talking to the clerk about the campaign notes, Ulrich said she stopped sending them out with the remainder of the tax receipts.
The fact that she stopped sending out the campaign notes with the tax receipts is the reason why Duerst and Prestrud did not receive the campaign literature, Ulrich said.
Ulrich testified she did not use taxpayer funds to pay for sending out the campaign literature and apologized if anyone was offended by the campaign notes.
Ulrich said she believed Duerst had urged the town chair to contact law enforcement to get Ulrich out of the position of treasurer because Duerst and Ulrich do not communicate very well.
At a town meeting, Ulrich said she had heard Duerst tell Bartz the job of treasurer was not that hard and “you can do this.”
Ulrich also said her husband had told her she should “reach out” to town residents to let them know she was still interested in being treasurer in New Haven.
In her closing statement, Bosworth said Maki had not proven Ulrich received anything of value for mailing out campaign literature with the property tax receipts she had issued.
The statute is intended to address embezzling funds and receiving gifts, she said.
During her questions to witnesses, Bosworth emphasized that tax receipts are public records which can be requested by anyone and the town treasurer is not required to send out receipts.
None of the testimony or evidence presented in court suggested Ulrich is not an excellent town treasurer, Judge Smeltzer said, adding he appreciated Ulrich’s service to the community.
But the issue before the court is state statute 19.59(1)(C2), the judge said.
That section of the statute states, no public official may “use his or her office or position in a way that produces or assists in the production of a substantial benefit, direct or indirect, for the official, one or more members of the official’s immediate family, either separately or together, or an organization with which that official is associated.”
The fact that property tax receipts and campaign literature were co-mingled becomes the problem, Judge Smeltzer said.
The duties of the elected office of treasurer and the campaign for treasurer are separate, he said.
Nothing in the court record suggested Ulrich did not reimburse the Town of Hew Haven or did not pay for materials and postage herself, and it is clear the township did not pay for the campaign material, Judge Smeltzer said.
The issue, he said, is that in her official capacity as treasurer, even if sending out the receipts is a courtesy, Ulrich sent out campaign literature with the property tax receipts.
The value is that Ulrich became re-elected as treasurer and she is paid to do the duties of the treasurer, Judge Smeltzer said.
Judge Smeltzer found Ulrich guilty of an ethics violation and asked for recommendations from the defense and the prosecution on a fine.
Maki asked that Ulrich be fined the maximum amount of $301.30.
Bosworth asked for Ulrich to be fined the minimum amount and that the payment of the fine be stayed pending appeal of the case.
A fine of $150.10 would be more appropriate, Bosworth said. [/emember_protected]