As Judge Philip Kirk prepares to sentence Jim Ash, he will review dozens of letters from city officials, public employees and Ash’s friends and relatives.
Kirk is scheduled to sentence Ash, the city of Waupaca’s former park and recreation director, at 9 a.m. Wednesday, June 29.
Ash pleaded no contest to felony theft on April 21. He is accused of stealing nearly $200,000, most of which was siphoned through the Waupaca Recreation Association Participants checking account that Ash controlled without the city’s knowledge or oversight.
Common Council members Deb Fenske and John Lockwood were among those who wrote to the judge regarding Ash’s sentencing. They noted that over the past several years the city government has been forced to cut spending, push old equipment “one more year,” and furlough employees.
They attributed some of the city’s budget problems over the past several years to Ash’s ongoing theft of public funds.
“If the city had the money back, would we still have gotten our equipment to last one more year? Maybe. Would we have cut the same areas of spending? Possibly. Would we have had to furlough our employees? In our opinion, no, we would not have,” Fenske and Lockwood said in their letter.
“Jim has not only stolen money from the citizens of Waupaca, he has stolen their trust in the city government,” Fenske and Lockwood wrote. “He has stolen the respect our citizens had for our employees. He has stolen time from city employees who had to work on his case. Jim has shown every Waupaca citizen the true meaning of unethical behavior.”
Their letter asked the judge to give Ash “the longest sentence the law will allow.” They requested that Ash pay not only full restitution, but 150 percent to 200 percent of the amount he stole.
“If the council had been informed that Jim would be allowed to resign with benefits and collect unemployment at the city’s expense, we would have vehemently voted against this,” Fenske and Lockwood said. “There is no question this money should also be paid back.”
“Jim’s crime has affected me personally and my department financially,” according to Sue Abrahamson, the children’s librarian at the Waupaca Area Public Library. She noted that the city, “being strapped for cash,” gave furlough days to all city employees and froze the library’s budget for the last three months in 2010.
“No children’s material was purchased for the young readers of Waupaca,” Abrahamson wrote. “Our departments covered the deficits created by Mr. Ash’s mismanagement of his department and now proven theft.”
Abrahamson added that Ash’s actions had a negative impact on the way the public viewed city employees.
She asked the judge to issue a judgment for full restitution and that Ash spend time in prison if the restitution is not paid within five years.
Teri Moe, who coordinates programs at the city’s senior center, described how city administrators ignored evidence of Ash’s stealing.
“Over seven years ago, I was alerted by another employee of the Park and Recreation Department that she was concerned that money was missing on a fairly regular basis, and she feared Jim was taking the money, and she didn’t want to be implicated or accused of theft,” Moe wrote. “We shared this with another (at that time) seasonal employee. Documentation began. We talked of different ways to stop this and wondered when city management would notice expenses on POs (purchase orders) with no income deposited for those different programs or program facilities,” Moe wrote.
She said staff informed Russ Montgomery, who was directly subordinate to Ash, about the situation, then learned that Ash denied taking any funds.
“We had warned him of our suspicions and he didn’t stop stealing,” Moe wrote. “Do you know how hard it is to come to work knowing what is going on (theft) and no one is willing to look into it or believe it?”
Moe said working with Ash caused physical and emotional stress for other city employees.
“Jim came to work less and less,” Moe said. “Everyone in the department worked hard to cover his disinterest in the job and maintain the level of service to Waupaca.”
“Why was Mr. Ash very quickly given a generous retirement?” asked Waupaca resident Cindy Kelm in a letter to the district attorney’s office. “Since my taxes pay for this suspected embezzler’s retirement, I want to know why it was given. Is this a common practice for every city department? The timing of this retirement and his retirement package make many suspicious of the mayor and other city managers’ knowledge of Mr. Ash’s illegal activity.”
Common Council member Paul Lehman also observed the negative impact Ash’s conduct has had on the reputation of city officials and employees.
“Residents are questioning the actions of their mayor, the city administrator, members of the Common Council and even some of the staff in the Park and Recreation Department. There is a genuine feeling that some in city government may have been complicit in Jim’s crime,” Lehman wrote. “While there is no evidence that this is the case, it will take some time before the citizens of our city begin to trust city government again.”
Lehman also questioned the public perception of Ash’s character.
“While Jim Ash is still considered a ‘nice man’ by many in the community, the facts of his crime prove just the opposite. He stole from everyone in the community, regardless of who they were. He stole from his friends, he stole from children, and he stole from the elderly and also his employer. He stole from anyone that would put their trust in him. It is because of his indiscriminate victimization of everyone around him that makes me wonder why anyone can still consider him a ‘nice man,'” Lehman wrote.
Lehman asked the court to order Ash to pay full restitution and to give him a sentence of at least 18 months in state prison instead of the county jail.
“A sentence that involves serving time in prison will set a strong deterrent to anyone else that might think of betraying the public trust,” Lehman wrote.
Many of the letters asked the judge for leniency and to consider the many years Ash served the city.
“I have known Jim Ash for as long as he has worked for the city of Waupaca. At one time I was his immediate supervisor. During that time Jim has accomplished many things for the city of Waupaca and its residents, especially the youth of our community,” wrote former Waupaca Mayor James Lewinski. “I believe Jim to be of good character.”
While Lewinski said he did not condone Ash’s behavior, he suggested a prison sentence would be counterproductive.
“I think he should have a chance to redeem himself, I think he should have the opportunity to make restitution to those who are due, and I believe it would be an extreme hardship for his family,” Lewinski said in his letter. “I would rather see him do some jail time, some extended supervision, and a lot of community service time to repay his debt to this community.”
Waupaca High School football coach John Koronkiewicz also wrote on Ash’s behalf.
“As an assistant coach, Jim has done an outstanding job. Working with our offensive and defensive line, he served as a mentor to many young men. He always treated the kids fairly and with respect. The boys enjoyed his company. I have to believe Jim played an instrumental role in the success of our program, his contributions are greatly appreciated, and his absence will leave a void that will be difficult to fill,” according to Koronkiewicz.
“I know Jim to be very remorseful for what he has done,” Koronkiewicz added. “I believe, though difficult, he can rebuild his life. Leniency would allow Jim and his family to move forward. As time goes on, hopefully we can all put this incident behind us and healing, as painful as it may be, can begin for the community, family and friends.”
Pat Phair, a former Common Council member and current member of the City Planning Commission, said he never had “a serious doubt over Jim’s ability to carry through on his duties and obligations to the children and adults of this community.”
Phair asked the judge to consider Ash’s many years of public service and all the positive contributions he has made to the community when determining his sentence.
“He was in charge of many fine programs for years. He hired hundreds of young people to work as summer staff, he increased the senior citizens programs, he turned the beach area into a popular attraction and he hosted dozens, perhaps hundreds of tournaments for basketball, softball, baseball and others, attracting thousands of people into the Waupaca community.”
The court received several letters supporting Ash from parents and grandparents of children who participated in city programs.
Tim Koll, a Waupaca High School teacher and former president of the Little League, noted Ash’s role in developing Swan Park and supporting the teams that played games there.
“Without Jim Ash, Waupaca would never have built Swan Park,” Koll wrote.
On April 26, Ash’s brother, Jeffery Ash, of Green Bay, sent a letter to Kirk, expressing the family’s concerns about the speed with which the case was being resolved.
“It seems curious that a felony matter carrying the possibility of a prison sentence would have a charge filed, a plea accepted and be all but settled on the same day,” Jeffrey Ash wrote.
“It’s difficult for us to reconcile the reported amount of alleged thefts with what we have seen firsthand during that time,” Jeffrey Ash wrote. “We always have seen the same older cars, the same older furniture, the same casual but not new clothing.”
Jeffrey Ash also asked why a pre-sentence investigation had not been requested. “We believe a psychological screening may be warranted to explore the possibility that addictive or compulsive shopping or hoarding behaviors may have been a factor in the defendant’s actions in this case.”
Kirk received the family’s letter on April 28, forwarded it to the prosecution and defense counsel, then ordered a pre-sentence investigation on May 6. The report was filed with the court on June 22.
Because Ash is scheduled for sentencing after the County Post goes to press, go to www.waupacanow.com for an update on the hearing.