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Ex-office manager charged with swindling Roseau auto dealer

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GRAND FORKS -- Lee Sorenson, the owner of a Roseau dealership, admits he's not a bookkeeper. That's why he had his office manager, Jeffery Rigstad.

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"I said 'You know, we'll be fine -- you take care of the bookkeeping, and I'll take care of the sales part," Sorenson said.

But in December 2008, Sorenson said, he discovered that Rigstad, an employee for 23 years, had stolen tens of thousands of dollars from the business and promptly fired him.

Sorenson said the financial hit forced him to layoff 17 full-time employees of the dealership that his father started in 1983 and passed on to him in 1999.

"It's down to one guy and myself, and the other guy is going to be gone at the end of this month," he said. "So, yeah, it hasn't been fun."

A criminal complaint accuses Rigstad of embezzling $72,270 from the dealership from December 2005 to December 2008. The 56-year-old from Roseau made his first appearance in state District Court on Monday on five counts of theft by swindle -- four are felonies and one is a misdemeanor. His next court date is set for Feb. 16.

Reached at home Monday, Rigstad, who works as a carrier for the Herald, said the situation is "complicated," but declined to comment further. Rigstad's attorney, Brian Hardwick, said it's premature for him to comment because, so far, all he knows about the case is what's in the complaint.

The complaint says Rigstad used company money to pay off personal credit cards, wipe out debts in a personal account he had with the company, cover his health insurance premiums and pay himself unauthorized wages and commissions.

According to the complaint, Rigstad told investigators with the Roseau Police Department his commissions came from registering cars with the department of motor vehicles. Sorenson told police another employee was supposed to have taken over that responsibility in 2000 or 2001, the complaint states.

Concerning payments to two credit card accounts, Rigstad told investigators he'd never paid off one of the accounts with a company check. He said that Sorenson had authorized him to have the company pay his entire health insurance premium, the complaint says.

Rigstad told investigators that he had issued himself extra paychecks in the past, erased his personal account before he was fired and forged checks in Sorenson's named, the complaint says.

If convicted on all charges, Rigstad faces a maximum of more than 50 years in prison.

$1.2 million payroll

Sorenson's dealership, which used to sell new General Motors vehicles, switched to selling used cars in September. He said the financial losses left him without the money GM wanted him to reinvest.

Despite the cuts GM has made, he said, he thinks he would still be a GM dealer if it wasn't for the money he's lost. Sorenson plans to relocate to a smaller site in Roseau and continue selling used cars.

Sorenson, 56, said all his laid-off employees have found new jobs with the exception of one 62-year-old who retired. "They're pretty disappointed because they liked working for me," he said. "No one's really happy about it."

He said he had a $1.2 million payroll -- "One-point-two plus all the extras to him."

Authorities are charging Rigstad with losses found three years from the time Sorenson made his report. But Sorenson suspects if there wasn't a statute of limitations, the loss figure would be higher. "It's been going on a lot longer than that," he said.

Sorensen said he now realizes why Rigstad was secretive about the dealership's finances and wouldn't answer questions. Sorenson says he made the mistake of giving Rigstad the authority to write checks.

"I'm guilty of being a trusting person," Sorenson said. "Scandinavian-type people who live in northern Minnesota -- you trust people."

Sorenson said he hopes to be awarded restitution through the criminal proceedings. He said he also plans to sue Rigstad.

"The guy lives half a block away from me, and it just makes me sick every time I see him."

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