TORKELSON COMP. $165,963
Contract $98,000; Benefits $30,000
3rd highest paid of state's 424 admin.
Wis. DPI Supt comp. $121,307
Cost per student Mercer $24,910,
Wis. $12,942, Nation $10,667
Mercer DPI Report Card score
lowest of all 422 Wis. schools




Thursday, May 23, 2019


The School Board Conundrum
2 - 1 -? - ?
The new Mercer School Board could face its first big challenge at its May 28 meeting: it may need to select a Board member to fill a vacant seat.
Going into the May 28 meeting, the Board consists of two members who want to repair the failed administration, one member who supports it, a new member whose allegiance is yet to be determined and the questionable unfilled spot.
The challenge at the meeting is whether to pick a person free of ties to the failed school administration and who will truly represent the best interests of the students and community or select another minion of Administrator Erik Torkelson.
There appears to be some controversy about the new Board member selection process.  At the April School Board meeting it was agreed that the procedure would be discussed at the May meeting.  Then, without the required Board approval, an ad appeared in the Iron County Minor soliciting applications for the vacant Board position by May 10 and stating that a selection would be made at the May 28 meeting.  Who created the ad and placed it in the Miner appears to be a mystery.
Mercer voters have been slowly making progress toward ridding themselves of a School Board which totally ignored unacceptable academic results and gross mismanagement and misspending.   
Until a few years ago, Torkelson controlled all five Board members. That control has eroded to where it appears that he now totally controls only one Board member, Micki Pierce-Holmstrom, owner of Century 21 Pierce Realty.  Filling the open Board seat with a person independent of Torkelson can be a deciding factor in whether the Board can function in the best interests of the students and the community or in the best interest of Torkelson.
Board members Karl Anderson and Jim Hannemann represent the best interests of the students and the community.  Newly elected Board member Bob Davis can be important in swinging the balance of power away from Torkelson and allow the Board to assume its rightful responsibility of managing school affairs. But will he? 
Supporters of Torkelson have been circulating petitions for one of his minions to influence the selection of the new School Board member.  The petitioning carries no weight and, humorously, looks like the amateurish selection of a prom queen.

If the selecting of an appointed Board member proceeds on May 28, Davis has to realize that the person selected must be totally independent of Torkelson and his followers. That person must be someone who possesses the determination and qualities capable of helping restore successful academic results and the honest and transparent management of school affairs.

Thursday, May 16, 2019


A Lesson to be Learned
BEWARE OF THOSE BEARING GIFTS
Do you remember McKInstry, the engineering company Mercer School District Administrator Erik Torkelson and School Board President Noel Brandt wanted to hire to manage a $4 million school improvement project?  Well, the firm was involved in a major bribery scandal which cost the administrator in another school district his job.  
Crandon School District Administrator Doug Kryder had been on paid administrative leave for nearly seven months while he was under police investigation for possible misconduct in office.  Now, Kryder is out of a job.  In accepting Kryder’s resignation, the Crandon School Board said that “it was mutually agreed that separation was best for all parties involved”.
The investigation revealed that a McKinstry executive offered Kryder low-cost Las Vegas golf vacations and free meals and drinks at conferences, according to email uncovered in the investigation.  Forest County District Attorney Chuck Simono said that the emails also referenced trips to the Kentucky Derby and the  Eau Claire-Chippewa Falls area.  Simono said that Kryder accepted the company’s offers more than once, an allegation Kryder denied. 
Kryder later advised the Crandon School Board to sign a nearly million-dollar contract with McKinstry to make energy efficiency improvements in the school. 
At the conclusion of the investigation, Simono decided not to charge Kryder with misconduct in office.  But Simono said Kryder committed “ethical violations” in his dealings with McKinstry. 
While he was the administrator, Kryder came under major criticism by school staff members and community residents for having a heavy-handed and arbitrary management style.  He controlled the five-member school board, which would do as commanded, a Crandon resident said.  (Sound familiar?)
A Crandon community group called Citizens United for Education was formed and demanded Kryder’s removal.  The group also led massive community recall campaigns, which resulted in removing two of the five Crandon School Board members.  A third member resigned, and a fourth new member has been elected to the board.   This has changed the entire posture of board, making it now responsive to staff, students and community interests, the resident added.
At about the same time the Crandon situation was developing, McKinstry was invited into the Mercer School by Torkelson and Brandt to do a facilities improvement plan.  A long list of projects was produced which would have cost about $4 million, plus about $2 million in interest.  When it became apparent that Mercer voter approval of a $6 million tax increase referendum would most certainly fail, the plan was dropped. 
Although Forest County DA Simono did not charge McKinstry with a crime, he said he asked the Wisconsin Department of Justice to investigate McKinstry’s business practices with schools across the state.
At the same time the DA said McKinstry was showering the Crandon administrator with gifts, McKinstry made a $250 scholarship donation to the Crandon school.  Guess what!  While McKinstry was courting Torkelson the firm gave a $250 scholarship donation to the Mercer school.  (Receipt No. 724718, dated 6/1/17)

Wednesday, May 8, 2019


The Administrator’s Pay and Benefits
ANOTHER INVESTIGATION?
Fresh from concluding the investigation and the dismissal of criminal
felony charges against five present and former School Board member, the Iron County Sheriff’s Department hinted that it may be conducting another investigation.
In an outstanding telecast by Rose McBride on WFTW Channel 12 in Rhinelander she said that when she asked the Iron County Sheriff’s Department to comment about the criminal felony charges, she was told it could not because “this is an ongoing investigation”.  (See MSF 4/11/19 The News That Rocked Mercer)
So, what could the “ongoing investigation” be about?  The investigation concerning the signing of the May 1, 2018, School Board letter and the destruction of a public record appears to have been concluded with Iron County Circuit Judge Patrick Madden mysterious dismissing them in an unprecedented action.
A major remaining unresolved issue involves the pay of Administrator Erik Torkelson.  Since he was hired in 2011 by his mother-in-law Kelly Kohegyi, president of the Mercer School Board at that time, he has taken home pay and benefits far in excess of his what his contract allows. Could the investigation be about that? 
Torkelson’s 2011 contract limited his pay to $98,000 and benefits to about $30,000.  A July 2017 contract increased his base pay to $113,500, but the contract is illegal because it was never approved by the Board in an open session.  During his tenure, he has also been paid bonuses which, again, were illegal because they were never approved by the Board in open session. But, look at what Mercer School documents show Torkelson actually has taken home in the past several years:
2017-18        $165,963
2016-17        $168,641
2015-16        $161,336
While Torkelson has been the administrator and drawing such exorbitant compensation, the school’s ACT composite scores have plummeted to well below state and national averages.  Also, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction School Report card score has placed Mercer 422nd in a list of all 422 Wisconsin school districts.
Hardly the kind of performance record that warrants a pay package of $165,963.
Add to this that we are paying $24,910 per year to educate each Mercer student, compared with a state average of $12,942 and national average of $10,667. The average annual all-inclusive cost for educating a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is $22,082.
Mercer school district documents concerning Torkelson’s pay and benefits have been given to District Attorney Matthew Tingstad, who along with Iron County Deputy Sheriff Lt. Paul Foryan, conducted the earlier investigation.
Let’s hope the “ongoing investigation” leads to Mercer taxpayers getting back some of their hard-earned money.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019


“Friends in High Places”
THE JUDGE AND HIS “MERCER 5” PALS
The saying “There is something rotten in Denmark” could very well apply to the Iron County Circuit Court of Judge Patrick Madden.  
This line from William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is interpreted by scholars of his writings to mean “there was something wrong with a certain situation – there was cause to be suspicious of people and their motives”
And there certainly is cause to be suspicious of the way in which Judge Madden handled the dismissal of the criminal felony charges against the “Mercer 5.” The news coverage by the three local newspapers would lead someone to conclude that the defendants’ best attorney was the judge himself.
In what was supposed to be an initial appearance of the five present and former Mercer School Board members, for some inexplicable reason, Judge Madden moved right into hearing motions for dismissal of the charges. This is very rarely done with criminal felony proceedings.  Such dismissal motions, filed by the defendants’ attorneys just one to three workings day before the initial appearances, would normally be heard at later court sessions.
At the start of the initial appearances, Madden ignored District Attorney Matthew Tingstad’s plea: “I am not prepared to argue today on the (dismissal) motions.  There was not enough notice.”  And before Madden dropped the final case, Tingstad said: “I didn’t even get to see the motion before coming into court, your honor”.  (This point was well made in an excellently written article by Abigail Bostwick in the Lakeland Times.)
This was not the first time that Madden has shown extraordinary favoritism to some of his pals on the Mercer School Board.  In a restraining order hearing about three years ago, he took the word of Deanna Pierpont, School Board president at the time and a defendant in the “Mercer 5” criminal cases, and Mercer School Administrator Erik Torkelson, that a letter alleging harassment of Mercer teacher Robyn Schoeneman had been written by Christa Reinert.  Christa was a candidate for election to the School Board and Pierpont and Torkelson knew they could not risk her being on the Board because of the possibility that she would have access to embarrassing and incriminating information about School Board and administrative practices.
Madden issued the restraining order, basing it on the false information that Christa had written the letter.  When another person submitted a sworn statement that he actually wrote the letter, Madden, showing loyalty to his School Board pals, denied a motion by Attorney Tony Stella to reverse his restraining order against Christa, even though there was proof that Christa had not written the letter.
As another saying goes,” It helps to have friends (Judge Madden) in high places.”
Contact DA Tingstad and encourage him to appeal the”Mercer 5” dismissals and email the Wisconsin Judicial Commission (www.wicourts.gov/judcom)  to ask for an investigation of Judge Madden’s conduct.

Friday, April 26, 2019


The Waning of an Autocracy
NEW BOARD MEMBERS INSTALLED; NEW OFFICERS ELECTED
In what may signal an end to control of the Mercer School Board by Administrator Erik Torkelson, two newly elected Board members were installed, and new officers elected at Monday night’s Board meeting.
Newly elected Jim Hannemann and Bob Davis took seats on the Board, and Bob Davis was elected Board president.  Karl Anderson was elected vice president, Jim Hannemann treasurer and Micki Pierce Holmstrom secretary.
Until three years ago, the five-member Board was totally controlled by Administrator Erik Torkelson, with all Board members blindly doing as he commanded.  That began to change three years ago with the election to the Board of Christa Reinert, who unseated Denise Thompson, owner of Tom’s Café in Mercer and a long-time supporter of Torkelson.  Torkelson had given Thompson’s daughter-in-law, Tricia Thompson, the very lucrative position of school business manager.
Christa began a relentless campaign of trying to restore sadly lacking honesty and transparency to the Board and administration.  She was consistently denied public records which she should have routinely received as a School Board member.
Then, a year ago, another advocate for honesty and transparency, Karl Anderson, was elected to the Board by unseating Torkelson’s mother-in-law, Kelly Kohegyi.
At this time, the School Board is comprised of Karl and Jim, who stand firmly for performing in the best interest of students and community, and Micki Pierce-Holmstrom, owner of Century 21 Pierce Realty in Mercer. She is the only remaining Board member whose loyalty seems to be to Torkelson. 
The jury is still out on where newly elected fourth member of the Board member Bob Davis will stand in supporting the failed administration.  Davis must overcome being identified with a group of Torkelson aficionados that ran a smear campaign to unseat Christa Reinert.  Davis repeated some of their many Christa falsehoods and even unwisely called the group “wonderful people”.  
The smear campaign strategy was mapped out by Torkelson and implemented by the Committee for Positive Action (aka Deanna Pierpont) and Micah Magma (aka Bill Brundage). Their divisive and dishonest efforts were successful and kept Christa from retaining her Board seat by only a mere 20 votes.  
The fifth seat on the Board, vacated by the resignation of Noel Brandt, will need to be filled by the present four Board members. Given the integrity of at least three of them, the prospect appears good in selecting a well-qualified and honest Board member. 
Also, at Monday night’s School Board meeting, Jim Hannemann proposed reviving the video recording of Board meetings and again making them available for public viewing.  The Board had recorded its meetings for the public from November 2016 through October 2017. The October 2017 meeting video was erased by then Board member Deanna Pierpont and further recording of meetings was stopped.  Pierpont’s action became an issue in the recently dismissed criminal court cases.
Jim’s proposal, along with another requesting that Board meeting minutes be posted within five days of a Board meeting, was tabled until the May meeting at the request of Davis who said he wanted to check the legality of the actions.  Wisconsin statutes do not prohibit the video recording of School Board meetings, and, in fact, protect them as public records once they are recorded.
After a 1-1/2 hour-long closed session, the Board approved a tentative settlement of Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction earlier findings that $175,248 of Community Service Fund 80 had been misspent.  Terms of the settlement will be made public following some revisions.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019


A Courtroom Mystery
JUSTICE: THE IRON COUNTY WAY
In what was a surprising and seemingly predetermined court proceeding, criminal felony charges against the Mercer 5 were dismissed Monday by Iron County Circuit Judge Patrick Madden.  (For details about the charges and the defendants see MSF 4/2/19 The Wheels of Justice Turn Slowly)
Of, course, the defendants must be presumed innocent until proven guilty.  But Judge Madden blocked even making that determination by throwing out the cases on a technicality that the criminal charges were flawed. We will never know if the charges actually were flawed because Judge Madden did not give District Attorney Matthew Tingstad an adequate opportunity to prove otherwise.
Almost at the start of the initial appearances of the Mercer 5 on Monday it appeared that Judge Madden had already made up his mind to dismiss the charges. It was supposed to be initial appearances at which the defendants are read the charges and bonds are set. 
Instead, Madden moved right into hearing the motions to dismiss which were filed only last Tuesday through Thursday by the defendants’ attorneys.   Judge Madden could do this, but in disregarding the timing he blindsided District Attorney Matthew Tingstad.
Tingstad went to court Monday morning expecting only initial appearance proceedings.  Judge Madden probably knew – or should have known -- that the one to three working days Tingstad had since receiving the motions to dismiss was not adequate time to prepare a response. Under the law, Tingstad should have been allowed sufficient time to respond to the motions,
As further evidence that Judge Madden made his decisions before entering the courtroom Monday morning, he had not even seen the letter on which he based his dismissals.  The district attorney gave him a copy during the first motion hearing.  Judge Madden took about 1-1/2 minutes to read it and then quickly decided that signatures under the heading “Mercer Board of Education” did not matter.
But probably the most befuddling of all in the Monday courtroom scene was Judge Madden’s dismissal of a charge against Deanna Pierpont.  She had been charged with destroying the video recording of the May 2017 Mercer School District annual meeting at which one school board member shouted an obscenity and another charged at a person speaking. 
Apparently willing to ignore a Wisconsin statute, Judge Madden errored in ruling that since the school was not legally required to record board meetings there was no requirement that the video had to be preserved.   However, Wisconsin Statute 19.31(2) clearly states that video recordings are public records and that once they are made they must be preserved.
In another strange maneuver, Madden dismissed charges against Micki Pierce Holmstrom on his basis of the other dismissals, even though her attorney had filed a motion asking only for “Demand for Discovery and Inspection”.
Tingstad can appeal Judge Madden’s decisions and Mercer residents can file complaints about his questionable actions with the Wisconsin Judicial Commission. (www.wicourts.gov/judcom)
So, in making his hasty Monday morning decisions was Judge Madden only eager to dispose of what could be a series of long drawn out legal proceedings, or were there other motives?

Saturday, April 20, 2019


The “Mercer 5” Criminal Felony Charges
THE WHEELS OF JUSTICE TURN SLOWLY
The first step in what could be a very long drawn out legal process will

be taken at 10:30 a.m. Monday when the two present and three former Mercer School Board members charged with criminal felony counts appear before Circuit Court Judge Patrick Madden in the Iron County Courthouse.
The five – Micki Pierce-Holmstrom, owner of Century 21 Pierce Reality in Mercer, Noel Brandt, Deanna Pierpont, Kelly Kohegyi and Denise Thompson, owner Tom’s Café in Mercer – will be in court for an “initial appearance”.  All that can happen at an initial appearance is that the charges will be read to each defendant and bonds will be set.
All five have retained legal counsel. As lawyers do, they have filed a series of motions just this last Wednesday and Thursday.  Those motions will be heard at future court sessions, as will the defendants’ pleas of guilty or not guilty be taken.
Micki Pierce’s attorney, who is from Eagle River, filed a three- page, 21-point “Demand for Discovery and Inspection” motion.  He has asked for the names and information about the potential witnesses District Attorney Matthew Tingstad intends to use and for numerous case documents.
Noel Brandt’s attorney from Madison submitted a nine-page “Motion to Dismiss” the charges, as did an attorney from Bessemer representing Deanna Pierpont, Kelly Kohegyi and Denise Thompson.  In those cases, the issue involves a May 1, 2018, letter to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction signed by the five School Board members. 
The problem is, and the state charges, that two of the five, Kohegyi and Thompson, were not members of the Board at that time of the signing, and the other three signed the letter knowing that. The basis of the motions to dismiss is that they were really signing and attesting to something that had occurred at a 2015 Board meeting when all five were Board members.  (See MSF 4/8/19 Details of the Charges)
Pierpont is additionally charged with a criminal felony count for destroying a video recording of the October 2017 School District annual meeting.  Her attorney’s motion to dismiss says: “the video alleged to have been destroyed by the defendant was a private video, property of the defendant.” 
However, a list on the school’s website of “Board Meeting Videos” going back several years reads: “We are now taping the School Board meetings.”  Note that it reads “We” not “I’.  Also, the recordings were done on school equipment.  
If Pierpont had not destroyed the video it would show Pierce shouting an obscenity and Brandt charging at a citizen who was speaking about the school’s “pathetic” ACT scores.  Pierpont told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that she erased video recording because: “I didn’t like what I saw…I just felt that I didn’t want that out on the website”.  Audio recordings of the meeting exists.
 
Stay tuned for many interesting days ahead.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019


From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

CHARGES AGAINST “MERCER FIVE” GOES NATIONAL

Annysa Johnson of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has done it again with an excellent job of reporting, this time about the criminal felony charges against the five present and former Mercer School Board members.  The Journal Sentinel is a part of the Gannett Media Group which published USA Today and owns numerous other major national print and broadcast operations.  Articles in the Journal Sentinel are frequently used by the Gannett sister media outlets.  Following is the Journal Sentinel news story.

Latest turmoil for tiny Northwoods district: Felony charges filed against 5 current and former school board members

Annysa Johnson, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Published 10:24 a.m. CT April 17, 2019 | Updated 10:39 a.m. CT April 17, 2019
 


 

Five current and former board members of a tiny Northwoods school district are facing felony charges for allegedly falsifying a letter to the state Department of Public Instruction and, in one case, destroying a video of a heated board meeting.

The charges are the latest development for the Mercer School District, which drew national attention in 2016 after two of its girls volleyball coaches — one is among those charged — allowed some players to watch the sexploitation flick "50 Shades of Grey" en route to a tournament.

The charges stem from an investigation by DPI in response to a complaint by board member Christa Reinert, an angry-volleyball-parent-turned-whistleblower who ran for office in part because of the "50 Shades" debacle.





The charges, filed in Iron County Circuit Court, accuse board members Deanna Pierpont, Michele Holmstrom and Noel Brandt of misconduct in office; and former members Denise Thompson and Colleen "Kelly" Kohegyi of falsely exercising a function of public office.



The five signed a May 1, 2018, letter to DPI detailing how they voted in closed session to give $18,000 in bonuses to District Administrator Erik Torkelson and three others, without acknowledging the votes in any minutes. All five identified themselves as board members, though two had lost their seats the month before.
 
Pierpont faces a second charge of misconduct for allegedly deleting a video recording of a heated school board meeting in October 2017. In an interview months later, Pierpont told the Journal Sentinel that she had erased it and that Mercer no longer records its meetings.

"I didn't like what I saw. ... People in the audience were yelling. Students were there. ... I just felt that I didn't want that out on the website," she said at the time.

Efforts to reach the five were not immediately successful.

Last summer, DPI issued a finding that the Mercer School District inappropriately spent about $175,000 from its community programs and services account — otherwise known as "Fund 80" — over the 2015-'16 and 2016-'17 school years. Most of that was used to boost wages and benefits for a small group of employees, including Torkelson, who is also Kohegyi's son-in-law, without adequate documentation, according to the letter.

DPI also admonished board members for voting on bonuses in closed session. State law allows votes in closed session, but only in limited cases, and the state Department of Justice advises elected bodies not to do so, unless "doing so would compromise the need for the closed session."

Mercer challenged DPI's findings, and Torkelson said Tuesday that the two sides are in mediation to resolve the dispute.

Reinert, who has taken on the role of board watchdog, lost her seat April 2 but said she will continue to push for transparency and accountability in the Mercer schools. She said she recently delivered a new cache of documents to the Iron County District Attorney's Office.

Contact Annysa Johnson at anjohnson@jrn.com or 414-224-2061. Follow her on Twitter at @JSEdbeat. And join the Journal Sentinel conversation about education issues at www.facebook.com/groups/WisconsinEducation.

Thursday, April 11, 2019


A Crank Facebook Accuser Accuses the Accusers
THE NEWS THAT “ROCKED” MERCER CONTINUES TO SPREAD

News of the criminal felony charges against the five present and former Mercer School Board members is receiving wide-spread coverage.  Print and broadcast media in many parts of the nation are featuring the story, including National Public Radio.  (See MSF 4/9/19 The D.A.’s View)
Duluth television stations 10 and 6 featured news reports about the charges filed in the Iron County Circuit Court by District Attorney Matthew Tingstad.  Probably one of the most comprehensive news reports was by Rose McBride on WJFW-12 out of Rhinelander last night. (The text of her report follows.)
The Iron County Miner and the Daily Globe had page one stories about the charges. The Miner called it the news that “rocked” Mercer.
Interestingly, a Mercer Facebook contributor, who does not understand the significance of these charges, is blaming the “negative notoriety” on the D.A., the Iron County Sheriff’s Department for investigating the charges, and the news media and blog and websites for reporting what is legitimate news.
The same distorted thinking was used when news also went viral about the showing of the sexually explicit movie “50 Shades of Grey” to young Mercer school girls by Kelly Kohegyi, a School Board member at the time and mother-in-law to Administrator Erik Torkelson.  In other words, it was not the act itself that was at fault but the news media for reporting it.   
This erroneous thinking seems to apply to the present situation with the five charged.  Of course, they are innocent until proven guilty.  But, accusing the accusers certainly does not help Mercer’s image and we hope it does not give others the impression that such warped thinking is representative of the good people of Mercer.

WJFW-12 Rhinelander

By Rose McBride

Current and former Mercer School Board members charged with felonies
Submitted: 04/10/2019
MERCER - A letter meant to show Mercer's school board did not inappropriately spend money on raises ended up leading to felony charges.

The Iron County District Attorney accused five current and former school board members on Friday of illegally signing that letter.

This means the problems from a Department of Public Instruction investigation into that $175,000 are far from over.

The Iron County Sheriff's Office spent months investigating five current and former school board members.

On April 5th, Denise Thompson, Kelly Kohegyi, Noel Brandt, Micki Holmstrom, and Deanna Pierpont were charged with Class I felonies.

The five signed a letter in May 2018 explaining performance bonuses given to Mercer school staff after the DPI audited the school.

Only Pierpont, Holmstrom, and Brandt were actually members of the school board at the time. 

Kohegyi was defeated in an election a month before and Thompson hadn't been on the board since 2016, according to Wisconsin Public Radio.

Kohegyi and Thompson were charged with falsely acting as a public official.

Pierpont, Holmstrom, and Brandt were charged with misconduct in office for signing the letter knowing that the two weren't on the board.

Pierpont was also charged with destroying a video of a public school board meeting in 2017 where Brandt got into a confrontation with a member of the public.

Class I felonies carry a maximum sentence of three years, six months in prison and a fine of $10,000.

Newswatch12 reached out to the Mercer school superintendent, the three current school board members with public contract information, and the DPI. None have gotten back to us.

We also contacted the Iron County Sheriff's Office who did not want to comment as this is an ongoing investigation.

All five are scheduled to appear in court for the first time April 22nd.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019


THE D.A.’S VIEW OF THE SCHOOL BOARD MEMBERS’ CHARGES

"These are school board members that are not acting as they should under state law," Tingstad said. "It appears that they’re doing what they want to do with the school board and (they’re) not committed to following any kind of laws here as far as they should be following." (From the transcript of the following NPR broadcast.)

WISCONSIN

PUBLIC RADIO

Wisconsin and the World - NPR

Members of Mercer School Board Charged With Misconduct
Charges Filed In Iron County Circuit Court Against Current, Former School Board Members
By Danielle Kaeding
Published: Tuesday, April 9, 2019, 10:10am
Several current and former members of one northern Wisconsin school board have been charged with misconduct in office or falsely acting as a public official.
The charges stem from destruction of a public record and two individuals falsely claiming to be members of the Mercer School Board.
Criminal complaints filed Friday in Iron County Circuit Court say the Mercer School Board sent a letter to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction last May to explain questions that came up from an audit by DPI.
DPI clawed back around $175,000 from the district last year for inappropriately spending money from its "Fund 80" account that reserves money for community programs and services, according to a DPI letter dated June 26, posted on the blog Mercer School Facts. The agency found the fund was used without proper documentation to increase wages and benefits for a few district employees, including district administrator Erik Torkelson.
Deanna Pierpont, Denise Thompson, Michele "Micki" Holmstrom, Colleen "Kelly" Kohegyi, and Noel Brandt all signed a May 1 letter providing details on how money was spent from the fund, according to the complaints.
But, there was a problem, said Iron County District Attorney Matthew Tingstad: "There was two that weren’t school members that were appearing as if they were school board members."
Two of the five, Thompson and Kohegyi, were not school board members at the time of the letter. The complaint details Kohegyi had been defeated in an election a month before and Thompson hadn’t served on the board since 2016.
Christa Reinert, a current school board member who defeated Thompson in 2016, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last year she encountered pushback from board members when she started asking questions about how the district was spending money.  
"The other three that were school board members, held a meeting, submitting this letter, knowing that it wasn’t the school board — that there were two individuals on there that weren’t part of the school board," Tingstad said.
Pierpont, Holmstrom and Brandt are charged with felony misconduct in office, and Thompson and Kohegyi are charged with felony falsely exercising a role of public office.
Tingstad said the five are facing felony charges that could bring up to a $10,000 fine or three years in prison.
In addition, former school board president Deanna Pierpont is facing an additional misconduct charge after telling the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel she erased a video of a school board meeting.
"These are school board members that are not acting as they should under state law," Tingstad said. "It appears that they’re doing what they want to do with the school board and (they’re) not committed to following any kind of laws here as far as they should be following."

A DPI spokeswoman wrote in an email Monday the agency is in ongoing discussions with Mercer to resolve an issue with the district’s misuse of its account for community programs. She said DPI is unaware of any criminal activity in connection with that issue.
Pierpont, Holmstrom and Brandt are still serving on the school board.
Attempts to reach four of the five individuals charged and district administrator Erik Torkelson were unsuccessful Monday. Kohegyi declined to comment. 
Wisconsin Public Radio, © Copyright 2019, Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System and Wisconsin Educational Communications Board.

Monday, April 8, 2019


Details of the Charges
SHERIFF’S INVESTIGATION LED TO CRIMINAL CHARGES
Details of the criminal felony charges against three present Mercer School Board members, Deanna Pierpont, Noel Brandt and Micki Holmstrom, and two former Board members, Kelly Kohegyi and Denise Thompson, have been spelled out in Iron County Circuit Court filings by Lt. Matt Foryan of the Iron County Sheriff’s Department.  Lt. Foryan is the complainant in all five criminal cases.
The charges against the five are considered Class I felonies and upon conviction could carry penalties for each of fines of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment of not more than 3 ½ years, or both.
Pierpont is charged by Lt. Foryan with destroying a public record, the video recording of the October 2017 annual Mercer School District meeting, which he said involved some profanity and a confrontation.  He cites sec. 946.12(2), 939.50(3)(i) Wis. Stats. “Misconduct/Office-Act/Excess Authority, in that Pierpont in her capacity as an officer of the School Board, ”did an act which the officer knows is in excess of the officer’s lawful authority or which the officer knows the officer is forbidden by law to do in the officer’s official capacity.”
Lt. Foryan also pointed out in the complaint that Pierpont told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that she had erased the video.
An additional charge against Pierpont and the other four defendants relates to a May 1, 2018, letter to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.  Lt Foryan charged that Kohegyi and Thompson, owner of Tom’s Café in Mercer, signed the letter as members of the Mercer Board of Education, when, in fact, they were not members at that time.  They did knowing that their “right so to act had ceased, exercise a function of a public office, contrary to sec. 946.69(2)(b), 939.50(3)(i) Wis. Stats,” he stated.  Lt. Foryan also pointed out that Kohegyi was defeated in the April 2018 School Board election, and that Thompson had been off the Board since April 2016.
The charges against Pierpont, Brandt and Micki Holmstrom, owner of Century 21 Pierce Realty in Mercer, stem from their signing the May 1, 2018, letter along with Kohegyi and Thompson, knowing that they were non-board members.  It is forbidden by law to exercise a function of public office knowing that his/her right to so act had ceased,” Foryan charged.
Lt. Foryan had been investigating the possible violations since last June when a number of Mercer residents met with the Iron County District Attorney Matthew J. Tingstad to voice their concerns.
Of course, all five defendants must be considered innocent until proven guilty.

 

Saturday, April 6, 2019


Innocent Until Proven Guilty

3 PRESENT, 2 FORMER MERCER SCHOOL BOARD MEMBERS CHARGED WITH CRIMINAL FELONIES


Deanna Pierpont, Noel Brandt, Micki Pierce-Holmstrom, Kelly Kohegyi and Denise Thompson have been charged with Class I criminal felony counts in the Iron County Circuit Court by District Attorney Matthew J. Tingstad. 

All five defendants have been ordered to appear before Circuit Court Judge Patrick J. Madden for initial appearances at 10:30 a.m. on Monday, April 22, the same day as the Mercer School Board meeting at 5 p.m.  At the initial appearances, dates for preliminary hearings will be set.  At some point, the defendants will be asked to enter pleas of guilty or not guilty and post bonds.  Eventually trial dates will be set.

Of course, in every criminal case the defendant must be considered innocent until proven guilty.

It is possible that Judge Madden may need to recuse himself from trying, at least, Pierpont and Kohegyi, in which case a judge from another county will be brought in.  Judge Madden is believed to be a longtime friend of the two defendants.

The crimes with which all five are charged are consider Class I felony offenses.  A Class I offense is punishable by up to 3 ½ years in state prison, fines up to $10,000, or both imprisonment and a fine. A Class felony is the least severe felony offense in Wisconsin.

The details of the alleged offenses are not spelled out in the Circuit Court case summaries, which were filed by District Attorney Tingstad.  However, in the State of Wisconsin vs. Deanna Pierpont, (Iron County Case Number 2019CF000014) she is charged with two counts of “Misconduct/Office-Act/Excess Authority, Wisconsin statute 946.12(2)".

That statute reads: “946.12(2)In the officer's or employee's capacity as such officer or employee, does an act which the officer or employee knows is in excess of the officer's or employee's lawful authority or which the officer or employee knows the officer or employee is forbidden by law to do in the officer's or employee's official capacity.”

It is believed that those charges stem from Pierpont’s alleged destruction of a video recording of the October 2017 Mercer School District annual meeting.  It is unlawful to destroy a public record, and video recordings made by a school would be considered a public record.

In a July 2018 page one Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article Pierpont is quoted as saying that she erased the recording. “I didn’t like what I saw…I just felt that I didn’t want that that out on the website,” Pierpont is quoted as saying.  Until then all Mercer School Board meetings had been recorded and put on the school’s website.

The video would show a turbulent incident in which Board member Noel Brandt confronted a Mercer resident who was trying to discuss what he called the district’s “pathetic” ACT scores.  A deputy sheriff intervened.  An audio recording of the incident and statements by the deputy sheriff and the Mercer resident may have been factored into the charges against Pierpont.

The charge against Noel Brandt may also stem from that October 2017 annual school district meeting fracas.  He is charged in “Iron County Case Number 2019CF000010 State of Wisconsin vs. Noel W Brandt” with the same “Misconduct/Office-Act/Excess Authority, Wisconsin statute 946.12(2)”.

Michele (Micki) Holmstrom, owner of Century 21 Pierce Realty in Mercer, is charged with same criminal felony count in “Iron County Case Number 2019CF000011 State of Wisconsin vs. Michele L. Holmstrom”.  Her charge may be the result of when she shouted out obscenities while the Brandt incident was occurring.  Although the video was erased, the audio recording was turned over to the sheriff’s deputy who investigated the cases.

The criminal felony charges against Colleen (Kelly) Kohegyi “Iron County Case Number 2019CF000012 State of Wisconsin vs. Colleen E. Kohegyi”, and Denise F. Thompson, owner of Tom’s Café in Mercer “Iron County Case Number 2019CF000013 State of Wisconsin vs. Denise F. Thompson" relate to an entirely different matter than the October 2017 meeting.

Their charges are for a violation of Wisconsin statute 948.69(2)(b) Falsely Exercise Function /Public Office.  That statute reads: “946.69  Falsely assuming to act as a public officer or employee or a utility employee.

946.69(2) (2) Whoever does any of the following is guilty of a Class I felony:

946.69(2)(b) (b) Exercises any function of a public office, knowing that he or she has not qualified so to act or that his or her right so to act has ceased.

Kohegyi and Thompson signed their names on a May 1, 2018, letter to the Wisconsin Department of Instruction as members of the Mercer School Board.  They were not on the board at that that time.

This litigation may extend over many months.  Meanwhile, please remember what was said at the start of this blog: these defendants must be considered innocent until proven guilty.