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DNR officer charged with theft, allegedly charged gas not used for patrols

WILLMAR - A 47-year-old Sunburg man has been charged with felony theft related to gasoline purchases on his state-issued fleet card while working as a state conservation officer.

James Clifford Steffen allegedly charged more gas on his fleet card than was used in the state-owned boat, all-terrain vehicle and snowmobile he used for his work as a Department of Natural Resources conservation officer.

Steffen's first appearance on two felony charges for theft of public funds, plus a misdemeanor theft count, is Aug. 14 in Kandiyohi County District Court.

According to the complaint opened Wednesday in District Court, the investigation was conducted by the Wright County Sheriff's Office and found approximately 435 gallons of fuel was charged to the account but not used for state purposes. A total dollar amount was not assigned.

An investigation by the DNR first began when a citizen reported suspicious purchases of gasoline by Steffen at a Sunburg gas station, including when Steffen filled his state-owned work truck and numerous portable gas cans in his state-owned boat.

The DNR found that the purchases were made by using a "9999" code, which is supposed to be fuel for other equipment, such as boats, ATVs and snowmobiles.

The Wright County officer found that there were 13 unusual purchases of gas using the code for other equipment between July 18, 2010, and April 2012. The average quantity of gas purchased was 27.99 gallons, much more fuel than is needed to fill the tank of an ATV, boat or snowmobile.

DNR officials checked the fuel usage and consumption on Steffen's ATV, boat and snowmobile, finding that the vehicle usage fell well short of the fuel amount purchased on his state-issued fleet card. The estimated amount was 100 gallons more than an officer designated as a "high fuel use officer" and about 164 gallons more than that used by other officers chosen for a comparison.

DNR officials had also taken Steffen's watercraft on Aug. 1, 2012, and replaced it with another watercraft on Aug. 2, 2012. Studies on the boat, based on fuel consumption and hours on the motor, showed there were 51 gallons of gas unaccounted for between Aug. 2 and Oct. 5, 2012.

Fuel usage logs were also reviewed, showing Steffen made gas purchases under the 9999 code for "other equipment" amounting to 469.9 gallons of fuel between July 2010 and August 2012, well beyond the estimated 112 gallons of fuel the analysis showed Steffen using in a two-year period in his ATV, boat and snowmobile.

All but one of theses 9999-coded gas purchases were made at the same gas station in Sunburg.

The investigator noted that there was a discrepancy of approximately 387 gallons between the gallons of gas purchased and the average usage by Steffen in the state-owned equipment.

The complaint also notes that between Aug. 2 and Oct. 5, 2012, there were 51 gallons of fuel that could not be accounted for, amounting to approximately $179. The price of $3.49 per gallon was the lowest price paid for gas on Steffen's fuel card.

Gretchen Schlosser

Gretchen Schlosser is the public safety reporter, and writes about agriculture occasionally, for the West Central Tribune. She's been with the Tribune since 2006 and has 17 years of experience working in news, media and communications. 

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