By Brandi Makuski
The Portage Co. District Attorney’s Office has requested a special prosecutor to oversee the investigation into allegations of financial misconduct within the county treasurer’s office.
Following what’s been called an “internal review” by the county, the case was referred to the Steven Point Police Dept. on Sept. 10 to determine what, if any, crime had taken place within County Treasurer Stephanie Stokes’ office.
Following that investigation, the case was sent to the DA’s office for review on Oct. 6. District Attorney Louis Molepske, Jr. confirmed the request on Monday.
“We requested a special prosecutor so there’s no concern…I think it’s better when there are allegations against a government office, that I have another DA look at the case to determine if charges should be filed,” Molepske said, adding fresh eyes would avoid the appearance of impropriety, as he and others in the DA’s office personally know employees from the county treasurer’s office.
When asked what the specific allegations were, Molepske only said they were “financial” in nature, and based on independent investigation there were “numbers that didn’t add up”. He did say the police dept. did not submit a request for charges, but rather a request for review to determine if any state law had been violated.
Molepske said his office wasn’t able to release a copy of the request for review because the case is still open.
Multiple county officials have declined to comment on what exactly sparked the internal investigation, though Corporation Counsel Mike McKenna referred City Times staff to a routine 2013 audit of the treasurer’s office, conducted by the third-party accounting firm Baker Tilly.
In that report several deficiencies in the office were noted, to include lack of control over access to the county’s checking account and wire transfers, no policy related to investment management, lack of “overall accounting and finance knowledge” and a lack of policy relating to reconciliation and reporting requirements.
Several members of the Portage Co. Finance Committee confirmed Stokes, who was first elected to the office in 2004, has provided follow-up reports to the committee indicating how improvements were made in her office, though most of those reports were verbal and the details were therefore not included in the committee’s meeting minutes.
“You’d have to take that [audit] report to Stephanie’s office and ask her what she’s done to improve things, bullet-by-bullet, but that would take weeks,” said Finance Committee member Jeanne Dodge. “I don’t think she submitted any reports in writing.”
Finance Director Jennifer Jossie said Stokes has appeared before the Finance Committee “multiple times between 2013 and earlier this year” but referred all questions relating to the investigation to McKenna’s office.
“I don’t think we ever took any action on them. If we did, it wasn’t much,” Finance Committee Chairman Jim Gifford said of Stokes’ reports.
When asked why the Finance Committee had not requested a written report of changes made by Stokes’ office, Gifford said, “We didn’t see a need for it, honestly.”
When asked if any follow-up audit of the treasurer’s office had been undertaken to reflect updates from the past two years, Gifford said no.
McKenna declined to say whether Stokes, or her recently-departed longtime deputy treasurer, Amy Townsend, was a focus of the investigation, saying instead the entire office and its operations were being looked at.
Townsend, who resigned Sept. 3, had been appointed to her office in 2001, though it’s not clear if her departure is related to the investigation. Two weeks later Townsend applied to be a part-time bookkeeper for the Village of Whiting but was not hired.
The Finance Committee entered into closed session on Sept. 28 to “consider strategy for financial crime detection or prevention within county departments”, but multiple county officials, including County Executive Patty Dreier and County Board Chairman Phil Idsvoog, have declined comment.
Stokes has also declined comment.
*This story is ongoing.