Friday, January 10, 2020

Wells, Sonnleitner agree to enter pleas to resolve criminal charges from UW Oshkosh Foundation case

Richard Wells, flanked by Thomas Sonnleitner, right, and Sonnleitner's lawyer, Steven Biskupic.
By Miles Maguire
Two former UW Oshkosh officials have agreed to enter pleas to resolve criminal charges they face in connection with real estate investments that the school backed through its foundation.

Former Chancellor Richard Wells and former Vice Chancellor Thomas Sonnleitner were accused in April 2018 of misconduct in office and exceeding their legal authority. The criminal complaint against them included five counts that carried penalties of up to $50,000 in fines and nearly 18 years in prison.

The two men had pleaded not guilty and were due in court next week to hear an oral ruling in the case that might have meant dismissal. But they were also fighting a related civil case in Dane County that could have kept them tied up in court for years.

The state signaled this week that both cases were being settled.

In the criminal case “the parties have resolved these matters,” said Assistant Attorney General W. Richard Chiapete in a Jan. 7 letter to Winnebago County Circuit Judge John A. Jorgensen.

The Jan. 15 court session at which Jorgensen was scheduled to issue an oral ruling on the case has been changed to a plea/sentencing hearing.

“We will file under seal any and all relevant documents for the court’s review; including sentencing memorandums no later than the close of business on Monday, Jan. 13,” Chiapete wrote.

Also on Tuesday state lawyers told a Dane County judge who is handling a related civil case that there is a tentative settlement in that proceeding as well.

The lawyers for Wells and Sonnleitner declined to provide specific information.“Everything is under seal until Wednesday,” said Sonnleitner’s attorney Steven M. Biskupic.

Most criminal cases are settled without a trial. Prosecutors sometimes agree to reduce the number or severity of charges in exchange for a plea agreement. Defendants can agree to plead guilty or no contest. Some charges may be dismissed outright, or they may be read into the record, which means they could be considered in sentencing for another criminal case.

The facts of the case have not been in dispute. Wells and Sonnleitner did work to facilitate real estate investments that the UW Oshkosh Foundation entered into, and some of those investments ran into significant financial problems that the university agreed to cover.

But Wells and Sonnleitner have argued that there was no criminal intent or personal gain and that at least one high-ranking employee of the UW System was well aware of the real estate deals.

At one point it appeared that the state might be on the hook for up to $15 million, but a legal settlement between the UW System and the Oshkosh foundation came in at much less and gave the university control over a conference building and a biodigester.

The cost to the state has been further mitigated by an insurance settlement of $1.5 million, which was disclosed late last year. No taxpayer funds were used to resolve the obligations that Wells and Sonnleitner approved.

During his tenure as chancellor, Wells was an energetic fundraiser who developed strong ties to the local business community and to the university’s major benefactors. Many of them have been put off by the state’s aggressive legal maneuvering.

“Chancellor Wells and Vice Chancellor Sonnleitner had the best interests of the university at heart,” one of those boosters said. “All the projects were initiated in support of the educational mission and in an effort to make UWO a better place.”

According to this person, “a forced guilty plea accomplishes nothing beyond perhaps some satisfaction to justify the taxpayer dollars used to drag this out for three years.”

The UW System has a policy of not commenting on lawsuits while they are underway.

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