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Willmar, Minn., man pleads guilty to swindling rural church of $60K

WILLMAR -- Paul Alton Hanson, 50, of Willmar has pleaded guilty to three felony charges of theft by swindle for stealing more than $60,000 from Tripolis Lutheran Church of rural Kandiyohi.

Hanson entered the guilty pleas Wednesday morning in Kandiyohi County District Court. District Judge Donald Spilseth ordered a pre-sentence investigation and set Hanson's sentencing for Sept. 24.

Hanson had been accused of writing 129 checks to himself between July 2011 and January 2013 for $61,623.83 while he was church treasurer. He disguised his actions by writing apparently legitimate church expenses in the church's financial ledgers.

According to court records, the investigation began when church officials contacted the Kandiyohi County Sheriff's Office in February. The officials said their bank had notified them that Hanson, the church's treasurer, had been cashing numerous checks written to himself. The officials told a Sheriff's Office detective that Hanson had admitted, during a meeting with the church's executive committee, that he had written the checks to himself for personal gain and not for compensation.

The officials also disclosed that Hanson had apologized profusely and requested that the matter be taken care of within the church.

When bank officials had first notified church officials of the numerous checks Hanson was writing to himself, church officials believed Hanson was paying himself for mowing at the church or reimbursing himself for expenses. It wasn't until late in 2012 when church officials reviewed the records and found that Hanson had paid himself more than $60,000.

The ledgers and check memos indicate Hanson recorded the checks as donations to local and church missions, utility payments, repair bills to contractors, payments for altar supplies or Sunday School supplies, and pastoral pension and federal tax payments.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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