Saukville woman guilty of embezzling from wildlife sanctuary

Former member of board of directors pleads no contest to stealing thousands of dollars from Blue Heron
Ozaukee Press staff

A 47-year-old woman who served on the board of directors of Blue Heron Wildlife Sanctuary in the Town of Saukville was found guilty Tuesday of embezzling tens of thousands of dollars from the organization over a more-than-three-year period beginning in 2013.

Saukville resident Lynette R. Whitford pleaded no contest to one count of felony theft during a hearing before Ozaukee County Circuit Judge Joseph Voiland.

Whitford’s attorney, Perry Lieuallen, told Voiland that the sentencing would have to be delayed because the recommendation from the District Attorney’s Office will depend on how much restitution she is able to pay. Lieuallen said Whitford is the beneficiary of a trust that at one point had a value of more than $200,000.

The crime Whitford committed is punishable by a maximum five years in prison and five years of extended supervision.

Whitford was arrested on Oct. 25, 2016, and charged a day later after Blue Heron Wildlife Sanctuary officials and authorities determined that $142,000 had been transferred from the group’s investments to its bank account and that unauthorized charges totaling $85,533 were made to Blue Heron’s credit card account to pay for expenses that ranged from pricey vacations and shopping trips to medical and insurance bills, according to the criminal complaint.

An investigation by the Ozaukee County Sheriff’s Department began Sept. 15, 2016, when Blue Heron President John Kelm reported that the organization’s accountant informed him that tax returns had revealed discrepancies in the group’s financial records.

Kelm told authorities that in addition to being a Blue Heron Wildlife Sanctuary board member, Whitford had helped her mother Barb Bogatzke, who was the organization’s treasurer, manage the group’s accounts before Bogatzke died in March 2015.

Kelm added that Whitford was also paid $20 per hour to do maintenance and groundskeeping work at the preserve and had access to the organization’s credit card to purchase gas and supplies.

Authorities learned that Blue Heron had a TD Ameritrade investment account, a Port Washington State Bank account and a US Bank credit card account. 

After Bogatzke died, Blue Heron officials requested receipts and other financial information from Whitford. It took her more than a year to turn over the information, which according to authorities revealed that records of transfers from the investment account to the bank account were falsely recorded, according to the complaint. Authorities also determined that credit card payments and balances were also not recorded accurately.

A representative of Global Value Investment, the firm Blue Heron paid to manage its investments, told authorities that Whitford had made several requests for money to be transferred from the organization’s investment account to its bank account. According to the firm, the total amount transferred was about $142,000, the complaint states.

A review of credit card records by Blue Heron officials revealed 200 unapproved  and improper charges made between November 2015 and July 2016.

The charges include thousands of dollars worth of purchases at stores such as Meijer, Piggly Wiggly, Shopko, Game Stop and Target. A single purchase at Dick’s Sporting Goods was for $1,109, while another at Best Buy was for $1,847, according to the criminal complaint.

Travel-related purchases included airline tickets, hotels rooms and car rentals. One purchase listed in the criminal complaint was for three American Airline tickets for Whitford, her husband and another family member for $1,968. Authorities said  Whitford spent more than $11,000 for a family trip to the 2015 Daytona 500.

Other purchases charged to Blue Heron’s credit card account were made at various salons, Victoria’s Secret, a liquor store, Fanatics NASCAR and Packers Pro Shop. Accounting services were also charged to the credit card.

When confronted by authorities, Whitford admitted to using Blue Heron’s credit card improperly and transferring money from its investments to pay for the charges, the complaint states.

Whitford said she expected her inheritance from her mother’s estate would more than cover the amount of money she charged on the organization’s credit card.

This was not the first time a Blue Heron official has been accused of embezzling from the organization. In 2007, Cheryl Gaszak, the former president of Blue Heron, was sentenced to seven years in prison for stealing nearly $1 million from the organization and its founder, Sally Stefaniak, between 2002 and 2005.

Stefaniak, who died in 2003, established a foundation to create and maintain the 92-acre preserve along the Milwaukee River off Highway O.


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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