The case against a 39-year-old former WesMin Resource Conservation and Development (WesMin RC&D) employee came to a close in Douglas County District Court Tuesday.
Sheila Marie Barsness of Brandon, the suspect accused of fabricating grants and organizations, entered pleas of guilty to three counts of felony theft by swindle.
According to Douglas County Attorney Chris Karpan, Barsness admitted to misleading Gary Brever of Parkers Prairie, Natalie Heckert of Alexandria and Barness' former employer, WesMin RC&D, by convincing them that she had succeeded in securing large grants that, in fact, never existed.
As a result, Brever and Heckert both spent thousands of dollars believing they would be reimbursed and the WesMin board gave Barsness a raise in pay.
In an earlier civil action against WesMin, which was spearheaded by the attorney general's office, Brever and Heckert were partially reimbursed for their losses.
However, on Tuesday, Barsness was ordered to pay an additional $5,000 to each Brever and Heckert, and $2,000 to WesMin.
Following her plea, Barsness was immediately sentenced and placed on supervised probation on all three counts for five years.
Conditions of her probation include the following:
Paying the restitution to the three victims - Brever, Heckert and WesMin.
Serving 10 days in the Douglas County Jail followed by 30 days of electronic home monitoring.
Paying fines of $700.
Following all of the recommendations of her mental health providers.
Completing 600 hours of community service work.
Remaining law abiding.
In addition, Judge Conrad Freeberg ordered Barsness not to be employed in any job that involved money or finances of others.
Barsness was taken into custody immediately follwing the hearing.
Karpan said in a statement to the newspaper that he echoed what both the defense attorney, Kent Marshall, and Judge Freeberg said at the sentencing hearing: "This is a particularly odd case because Barsness benefited very little from her misrepresentations."
He continued by saying, "What she did was truly illogical and somewhat bizarre and is clearly related to a number of mental health issues that she was struggling with at the time of the offenses and continues to struggle with."
Karpan also noted that while her mental health issues did not rise to the level of a true defense or absolve Barsness of her responsibility, they were obviously taken into consideration in structuring her plea agreement.
"I think everyone involved is relieved we've finally turned the last page in this very odd book," concluded Karpan.
Statement from Natalie Heckert
In a phone message to the newspaper, Heckert said it was nice to bring closure to this "crazy case" that has lasted more than three years.
"It was rewarding to have Sheila confess to her wrongdoings and to hear her say she was sorry," said Heckert. "It was also rewarding that the judicial system partially rectified the injustice that Gary and I and our families had to endure because of Sheila and WesMin's wrongdoings."
Heckert also stated that she would still appreciate an apology from WesMin. She said, "They have never said a thing."
She thanked the county attorney for bringing the case to a close and also for the restitution she and Brever received.
"Mind you, however, that the restitution represents only a small portion of what we lost in time, money, stress, etc.," concluded Heckert. "But I'm just glad it's over."
Statement from Gary Brever
Brever was the first one to discover that the grants were fabricated.
In an e-mail to the newspaper, Brever said that even though Barsness only received 10 days in jail along with the probation, community service and restitution, he feels her sentence was "fair and just."
"I wish her not more harm than what she has already inflicted upon herself. I hope she also receives the psychiatric help she needs," said Brever.
He also mentioned one disappointment in this case, which is that Barsness was the only individual punished in this case. Brever believes that the WesMin board and employees from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) should have been held accountable, as well.
"I still implore the federal government to do a thorough investigation into NRCS employees involved in the mishandling of this case and hold them accountable," said Brever.