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Making restitution: Lokken, Onarheim have paid almost $70,000

Convicted of stealing from taxpayers, two former longtime Eau Claire County employees are running out of time to pay more than $680,000 in restitution to avoid serving an additional five years each in prison.

Larry Lokken, the county’s elected treasurer for 38 years, and Kay Onarheim, who worked in the treasurer’s office for 34 years, have 16 months to pay $681,847 in full — $625,758 stolen from taxpayers between 2011 and 2013 plus additional charges of $56,809 for a forensic audit, insurance deductible and miscellaneous costs.

Lokken and Onarheim were charged criminally for the thefts occurring during that two-year period. However, further investigation by the Eau Claire Police Department indicated an additional $762,579 of funds were stolen between 2001 and 2010, according to county officials.

To date, Lokken and Onarheim have paid almost $70,000 in court-ordered restitution, according to the state Department of Corrections.

Of that, $37,357.53 has been paid to Eau Claire County, with Onarheim paying $20,660.18 and Lokken, the remaining $16,697.35.

An additional $32,494.62 has been paid to the Massachusetts Bay Insurance Co., with Onarheim paying $31,745.72 and Lokken, $748.90.

In late 2016, Eau Claire County agreed to a $1 million settlement with its insurance company. Beginning Jan. 1, 2017, any restitution paid by Lokken and Onarheim was to go to the insurance company.

The fact that Onarheim, 67, has paid three-fourths of the $69,852.18 in restitution paid so far doesn’t surprise either Colleen Bates or Stella Pagonis, who both serve on the Eau Claire County Board.

“This is an individual who couldn’t see his own wrongdoing, who somehow felt he didn’t have to be accountable for his actions,” said Bates, the board’s first vice chair, of Lokken, 71.

Pagonis, who serves as chair of the board’s Finance and Budget Committee, agreed.

“Larry just didn’t seem to feel any remorse to begin with,” Pagonis said. “I believe Kay truly regretted her actions. I give her credit for the fact that she has made an effort (to make restitution).”

Eau Claire attorney Harry Hertel, who represented Onarheim, is hoping Eau Claire County Judge Jon Theisen gives her some credit too.

“She made a commitment that she was going to pay restitution,” said Hertel, noting his client agreed proceeds from selling her home would go to restitution. She also signed over half of her monthly retirement benefits. “She didn’t have to do that, but she was remorseful and wanted to make amends.”

In January 2016 Theisen sentenced Lokken to 9½ years in prison and 11 years of extended supervision for five felony counts of theft and three felony counts of misconduct in office for his role in the theft.

Less than two months later, Theisen sentenced Onarheim to eight years in prison followed by nine years of extended supervision.

The judge also ordered them to pay restitution in full by July 2020. Payments could be made in any amount by both parties.

Lokken is appealing. In court documents, his attorney Randall Paulson of Milwaukee argues Theisen’s incentive — staying an additional five years in prison — is unlawful and that his client should be resentenced on all counts by a different judge.

Even though almost four years have passed since Lokken and Onarheim’s crimes were revealed, Pagonis still feels like she is constantly looking over her shoulder to make sure the county isn’t put in a similar position again.

“The whole thing is so disturbing,” she said.

Evers budget has no new move against chronic wasting disease

MADISON — Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ state budget doesn’t propose any new strategies to fight chronic wasting disease despite years of demands from his own party for more action.

The budget checks off a long list of other Democratic priorities, including legalizing marijuana. But it doesn’t devote any additional funding or call for any new approaches for researching or slowing CWD. In fact, the budget doesn’t mention the disease even once.

“That makes me a little bit sad,” said Jeff Schinkten, president of Whitetails Unlimited, a national deer conservation group based in Sturgeon Bay. “We’re disappointed there’s no money in there. I don’t like closing a blind eye to it. We’re just ignoring it. It’s frustrating.”

CWD affects deer’s brains, causing them to grow thin, act abnormally and eventually die. It was discovered in Wisconsin in 2001 near Mount Horeb.

The state Department of Natural Resources reacted by calling on hunters to kill as many deer in the area as possible to slow the disease’s spread. Hunters and landowners refused to buy in, saying there’s no need to kill so many deer. The DNR took so much criticism that the agency ultimately dropped the plan.

Wary of angering deer hunters and losing their votes, former Republican Gov. Scott Walker took a largely hands-off approach after he took office in 2011. The disease has since spread across the state. According to the DNR, 26 counties had at least one infected deer in the wild.

Democrats urged Walker to do more throughout his tenure. Walker did in early 2018 as he headed into the campaign season against Evers, adopting Democrats’ plan to force deer farms to upgrade fencing and ban hunters from moving deer carcasses out of CWD-affected counties, defined by the DNR as counties with an infection or counties within 10 miles of a county with an infection. According to the DNR, 56 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties qualify as affected.

Republican lawmakers scrapped the carcass ban last fall, though, saying hunters were outraged at the restriction.

Evers didn’t stress outdoor issues and didn’t announce any CWD strategies during his campaign. Still, liberals had hoped he would attack CWD more aggressively than Walker.

“This season there’s reason for hope,” former Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz wrote in an article published in Isthmus, a Madison weekly newspaper, days into the November gun deer hunt. “With the election of Tony Evers, we can at least expect that our state will drop its current ‘see no evil’ policy and confront the problem. ... The Evers election has made this year’s hunt just a little more joyous.”

But the budget does nothing with the disease. Evers’ spokeswoman, Melissa Baldauff, said in an email Friday that the administration is waiting for the DNR to come up with a CWD plan.

“Based on conversations with agency staff, there was not a need for the governor to put forward a specific budget request on CWD for this biennium because the DNR is continuing to work on its analysis of what can be done,” she said.

DNR officials had no immediate comment. Bill Bruins, a member of the DNR’s board and a Walker appointee, noted that the DNR is in the middle of a four-year study on deer mortality and Evers and the agency should wait until that’s complete before making any decisions.

“Is (CWD) a concern to the department and to everybody? Absolutely,” Bruins said. “(But) that has to translate into what’s doable and what can be done. That’s what the study is going to help us determine.”

State Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst and chairman of the Senate’s sporting heritage committee, said he’s not surprised Evers “punted” on the disease. The state has spent millions trying to fight it to no avail, he said. But he plans to ask new DNR Secretary Preston Cole during a confirmation hearing this week if the agency has a long-term plan.

“I could take a real partisan line here and say this is a failure of the Evers administration, but these are difficult decisions,” Tiffany said. “We’re just not sure yet what is going to be effective. But they’ve got to come forward with a plan. We need leadership from the Department of Natural Resources and ... the governor as well.”

Fred Clark, a former Democratic legislator whom Evers appointed the DNR board last week, was one of the more outspoken critics of Walker’s CWD strategy. He said he would have liked to have seen some CWD strategies in the budget but discussions about the disease are just beginning.

“It’s going to be a long road between here and seeing a budget passed,” Clark said.

Wisconsin births decline to lowest point in 40 years

MADISON (AP) — A drop in teen pregnancies has contributed to the lowest number of babies being born in Wisconsin in more than 40 years, according to a university researcher.

Data from the state Department of Health Services show there were less than 65,000 babies born in 2017, the lowest number in the state since 1973, Wisconsin Public Radio reported.

One major factor in the decrease in births is that fewer teens are having babies. Teen births have dropped 60 percent over a decade, David Egan-Robertson, of the UW-Madison Applied Population Laboratory.

“And in 2017, for the first time, teen births fell below 4 percent of total births,” he said. “So that’s quite a significant change.

“The decline in births that has been happening over the last 10 years has really been showing up in public school populations,” Egan-Robertson said. “So as we go forward we have to take that into account. One of the big implications, particularly in more rural districts, is the number of births are down. In fact, in some counties they’re down as much as 30 percent from 2007. That’s really having an impact on local school decisions.”

The figures also show that low birth weight in babies is increasing. Premature birth is the leading cause of infant death, said Marilyn Noll, director of maternal-child health at March of Dimes in Wisconsin.

“It’s really shocking to see the stats continue to rise. Everyone is doing a lot of work and yet they’re not seeing the fruits of their labor,” Noll said.