City: Lucci delivers justiceSuperior’s former fire chief gambled with fire department money and lost.
By: Shelley Nelson, The Daily Telegram
Superior’s former fire chief gambled with fire department money and lost.
Stephen A. Gotelaere, 61, reports to the Douglas County Jail at noon April 15 for transfer to the Wisconsin Prison System. He’ll serve about two years in prison for his role in an embezzlement scheme that cost the Superior Fire Department almost a quarter-million dollars over six years. He could be released early for good behavior.
Gotelaere pleaded guilty to two counts of theft and one count of misconduct in public office in December. Monday afternoon, Douglas County Circuit Court Judge Michael Lucci handed down the sentence, which includes repaying the city the $239,677 he was convicted of stealing between 1999 and 2005, when Gotelaere was forced to retire.
“I completely acknowledge and accept my responsibility in this matter. I did steal this money. I did betray the trust of the fire department, of the community, my friends and my family. I’m ashamed of my behavior, and I’m very sorry I allowed myself to engage in this deceptive behavior and practice.”
Gotelaere publicly acknowledged his gambling addiction. With his savings gone, he said he ran up large credit card debts, refinanced his home and took out large loans, but ran out of options to pay for his addiction.
“I say this not as an excuse for my behavior, but rather as an explanation about how this behavior can escalate,” Gotelaere told the court. “… I turned to this scheme. I emphasize this is not an excuse for my behavior. It is the reason, and in no way do I feel that it justifies what I did — the proceeds I spent on gambling.”
According to the Wisconsin Department of Justice investigation, Gotelaere conspired with a Chetek fire equipment vendor to submit phony invoices and legitimate invoices with false charges to the city. Gotelaere would then sign and submit the falsified invoices to the city’s finance department for payment.
Roger Otto, 56, of Chetek testified Monday that when he received payments from the city, he would deposit the checks in his bank account; then he and Gotelaere would meet for lunch to divvy up the proceeds. The former chief took about 90 percent of the stolen money. Otto said he took part in the scheme to keep his business from going under.
Gotelaere’s thefts were discovered after he was forced to retire as part of an agreement to reimburse the city when it was discovered he falsified mileage and travel records. Fire Chief Tad Matheson said Gotelaere met with each shift of firefighters to apologize for bringing dishonor to the department after the travel discrepancies were discovered. It was the only thing for which he ever apologized, Matheson said. The discrepancies in the invoices, which hurt department morale, Matheson said, were discovered after Gotelaere left.
When Gotelaere was hired by the fire department in 1974, the city had 71 firefighters. Because of budget constraints over the years, by 1996, Gotelaere headed a department with just 34 firefighters. In spite of the personnel cuts, the department’s responsibilities grew to include emergency medical and hazardous material response, gearing up a dive team and fire prevention and education. Grant money given to support some of those activities funded the scheme.
“I would hate to think he was lining his pockets while firefighters were being cut,” Matheson said in a statement to the court. “During his tenure as fire chief, I also witnessed our fire stations deteriorate. I’ve seen the purchase of lower-grade equipment. I’ve heard him say we would have to bypass the training of firefighters because of overtime costs. I have witnessed Steve not purchase firefighter gloves required by the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) … The firefighters purchased the gloves on their own. This in a period of time he was stealing from the department.”
Gotelaere denied that he ever put firefighters at risk, something Lucci found difficult to believe as he weighed testimony and statements given Monday with those filed with the court in advance of the sentencing hearing and the charges against the former fire chief.
The judge ultimately struck a compromise between sentencing recommendations made in a presentence investigation by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections against those in a plea agreement reached between Gotelaere and the Wisconsin Department of Justice, which investigated and prosecuted the case. Corrections recommended seven to 10 years probation and six to nine months in jail. The plea agreement called for a nine-year prison sentence with four years to be served in confinement.
Lucci ordered a eight-year prison sentence with two years to be served in confinement, the longest of three sentences handed down to be served concurrently. In addition to the prison sentence, which includes four years extended supervision, Gotelaere was ordered to pay restitution for the full amount stolen.
“Who would have ever thought it would take three years?” Matheson said this morning. But now that it’s over, he said, the department can really start to move forward.
“I commend the judge for taking into account the vast civic impact this had to our city,” said Council Vice President Kevin Norbie, a firefighter at the air base in Duluth. “Talking to a lot of people from my district, this has been a concern since the news broke (in June 2005) — distrust that anything would be done, belief that this was going to get swept under the rug or he was just going to get a slap on the wrist. I hope those people can now take heart that justice was served. He did receive a substantial penalty for this.”
Otto was sentenced last week in Barron County and was given five years probation and 10 months in the county jail. Judge Timothy Doyle also made Otto individually and jointly liable to pay full restitution in the case.
Mayor Dave Ross agreed Gotelaere’s sentence was just and said Lucci took into account every mitigating factor to reach a fair decision. While the city may never be fully reimbursed, the sentence included remuneration and some punishment, he said.
“I think Judge Lucci was — as every good judge does — they try to balance what’s fair and what’s right, and you have two very difficult standards you’d like to meet,” Ross said. “Justice should be always fair, but justice has to take into account a number of other factors. … I thought he had a very fair and balanced approach to this sentence.”
Ross acknowledged, too, that it was a sad day for those involved — families and friends of Gotelaere and Otto, and the cloud that has hung over the administration for years. On the positive side, he said the city of Superior has learned something in the process and this served as a wakeup call for vigilance.
“I’m glad it’s done; I’m glad we’re through it,” Ross said. “We can now focus our energy and time on other issues that are important to our community.”
Contact Shelley Nelson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (715) 395-5022.