Willmar man must serve jail time, pay $61,000 in church swindle
WILLMAR — A Willmar man convicted of stealing from the rural church that employed him will serve 90 days in jail immediately and has been ordered to pay back more than $61,000.
Paul Alton Hanson, 51, was sentenced Tuesday to 180 days in jail, a $300 fine and 10 years of probation on three felony charges of theft by swindle for stealing more than $60,000 from Tripolis Lutheran Church of rural Kandiyohi while he served as church treasurer.
As part of the sentence handed down by District Judge Paul A. Nelson in Kandiyohi County District Court, Hanson was also ordered to pay $51,623.83 to the church and $10,000 to the church’s insurance company as restitution.
Nelson admonished Hanson to “exhaust all possibilities” to gain and keep full-time employment. “You have a great deal of work ahead of you,” the judge told Hanson.
Hanson was ordered to serve 90 days in jail immediately. The remaining 90 days will be staggered over the next two years and can be deferred if he complies with conditions of probation, including paying the restitution and fines, being evaluated for the cognitive skills program and participating in victim-offender dialogue.
Craig Aurand, a church board member, gave the victim impact statement for the church during the hearing, noting that it was a sad day when the church leadership found that a person who was so qualified and trusted to handle the finances had betrayed their trust.
“You stole from every member, every person who has given to the church,” Aurand said, noting that Hanson took money designated for the Willmar Area Food Shelf, for hurricane relief and other charities.
The church will forgive Hanson and allow him to keep his membership, Aurand said, and will keep Hanson in its prayers.
“We pray for you, Paul, to change your ways and become a better man,” he said.
When it was his turn to speak, Hanson turned to the dozen church members in the gallery and apologized, saying he should have apologized earlier but didn’t know how.
“You are such a big part of my family,” he said. “I fully intend to make good on every cent I took. It’s whatever it takes, I will make things right.”
Hanson pleaded guilty in August to all three felony counts.
The charges were filed in May after an investigation by the Kandiyohi County Sheriff’s Office into Hanson writing more than 120 checks to himself while disguising his actions by writing apparently legitimate church expenses in the church’s financial ledgers.
The investigation began in February when church officials met with a sheriff’s detective. The officials reported that Hanson had been employed as the church treasurer and that they had received information from their bank that Hanson had been cashing numerous checks written to himself.
When bank officials first notified church officials of the numerous checks Hanson was writing to himself, church officials believed Hanson was paying himself for mowing services provided to the church or that he was reimbursing himself for expenses paid with his own money. It wasn’t until late in 2012 when church officials reviewed the canceled checks that they found that Hanson had paid himself more than $60,000.
The checking account ledger and canceled checks were turned over to law enforcement.
The ledgers and check memos indicated the checks, which were actually paid to Hanson, were recorded as donations to local charities and church missions, utility payments, repair bills to contractors, payments for altar supplies or Sunday school supplies, and pastoral pension and federal tax payments.