Former Superior fire chief pleads guilty

Steve Kuchera and Shelly Nelson
Duluth News Tribune - 12/20/2007

Former Superior Fire Chief Stephen A. Gotelaere faces prison after pleading guilty Wednesday to two counts of felony theft and one count of felony misconduct in office for a kickback scheme that allegedly netted him nearly $240,000.
Gotelaere, 60, began conspiring with the owner of the Superior Fire Department’s chief equipment supplier in 1999 to submit false invoices charging the city for equipment that was never ordered or delivered, according to a criminal complaint filed Wednesday.
After the city issued checks to pay for the fake invoices, Gotelaere would meet with the company’s owner and divide up the money. Assistant Attorney General Paul Barnett said “Gotelaere got the lion’s share,” with his co-conspirator getting about 10 percent.
Gotelaere’s accomplice in the scheme, Roger Lynn Otto, 56, of Chetek, Wis., pleaded guilty Wednesday in Barron County Circuit Court to one count of felony theft. He was doing business as Eddy Brothers Co.
The scheme went on until May 2005, when Gotelaere retired from the department after allegedly submitting a false travel and mileage claims.
Gotelaere entered the guilty pleas Wednesday morning during a hearing before Douglas County Circuit Court Judge Michael Lucci. Under the plea agreement, the state can ask the court to impose a sentence of up to nine years, including four years in prison followed by five years of extended supervision, as well as five additional years of probation. Gotelaere has also agreed to pay full restitution. The Wisconsin Department of Justice claims that Gotelaere may have taken as much as $239,676. Gotelaere disputes about $13,000 of this amount.
“I don’t believe we’ve seen anything like this in the history of Superior,” Mayor Dave Ross said. “This is a rare event … an aberration.”
Gotelaere could spend as many as 16? years in prison if Lucci rejects the recommendation. Gotelaere, who is free on a $50,000 signature bond, is scheduled for sentencing March 14.
Gotelaere retired June 10, 2005, after city officials discovered he falsified a travel request for a nonexistent conference and falsified monthly mileage reports. He resigned after signing a separation agreement with the city that called for him to forgo or repay $10,000 for any benefit he gained from falsified reports. He had been the department's chief for 13 years.
During that time, the department took on responsibility for leading an eight-county regional hazardous materials response team, gearing up a dive team, taking on medical first-response duties and reducing fires. Some grants that helped support those programs funded Gotelaere’s scheme, Barnett said.
After Gotelaere retired, then-acting fire chief Tad Matheson discovered other discrepancies in Gotelaere’s handling of Fire Department money while preparing for a grant audit. City officials approached the Wisconsin Department of Justice in June 2005 to request a criminal investigation, which resulted in the charges filed Wednesday.
“This has been a real black eye for the department,” Matheson said following Wednesday’s hearing. “Now that he’s pleaded guilty, we can move on. He’s an individual and doesn’t represent the morals of the department.”
After the theft was discovered, Finance Director Jean Vito said the city sought assistance from its independent auditor and implemented the recommended changes. Part of the problem that led to the theft, she said, was that Gotelaere was ordering the equipment and signing off on the invoices before payment. Those duties have since been segregated, she said.