Ex-ELCA synod bookkeeper to serve 4 years under plea deal for embezzling more than $700,000
MOORHEAD – A former bookkeeper for a Lutheran synod here pleaded guilty Wednesday to swindling more than $700,000 from the church over several years.
Lawyers agreed to a plea deal that recommended Robert Duane Larson, 62, of Wolverton serve four years in prison.
The plea deal also calls for Larson to pay over $700,000 to the church in restitution, some of which will come from selling Larson’s now-foreclosed home that was renovated with some of the stolen cash.
Larson took the stand Wednesday and admitted writing hundreds of forged checks from his employer, the Northwestern Minnesota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, to Rural Life Outreach, a nonprofit for needy farmers that operated under the umbrella of the church. Larson was a volunteer for RLO.
Then, instead of writing checks to needy farmers, Larson wrote them to himself and his wife.
He used the money to pay utility, phone and credit card bills, and to pay off a $2,600 loan from the U.S. Department of Education. He spent $345,000 of it to remodel his home, said Assistant Clay County Attorney Heidi Davies.
The house is now in foreclosure proceedings and will be sold, Davies said.
Davies said the house is the only “tangible benefit” of the embezzling that can be used to pay back the church because the stolen money was spent on daily expenses.
“There may have been various items such as antiques, scrapbooking materials, things like that, that were purchased over this course of time, but the house is really where the major remedy lies for the church recovering any restitution,” Davies said.
During his time at the synod, Larson was given permission to sign checks with RLO Program Coordinator Jon Evert’s name, but only “in emergency situations,” said Chris Karpan, Larson’s attorney.
Larson did it legitimately a few times but eventually started forging Evert’s name. Larson said he probably started doing that around 2005, but the bulk of the embezzling occurred from March 1, 2008 to Jan. 1, 2012.
Karpan said while the charge against Larson only covered 2008 through 2011, he will take responsibility for restitution “from the start of this illegal act to the end.”
As part of the plea deal, Larson pleaded guilty to theft of corporate property, a felony. The four felony charges of check forging will be dropped at his formal sentencing, which is not yet set but will likely be held next month.
Under state sentencing guidelines, the theft of corporate property charge normally calls for probation, Karpan said.
The plea deal asking for four years in prison departs from those guidelines, in part because there were multiple incidents of theft over a long period of time and because Larson was in a “position of extreme trust” with the church, Karpan said.
As part of the plea deal, the state will not seek charges against Larson’s wife, who received some of the embezzled money. The court will also ask federal prosecutors not to seek charges against Larson or his wife, Davies said. The feds aren’t bound by that, but they typically follow such agreements, she said.
Davies and Karpan both declined further comment until after the sentencing.