The Wisconsin Towns Association, the lobby for local government boards, doesn’t have to go far to find a speaker for its seminars on conflicts of interest and ethical lapses.
The group’s new president, Lee Engelbrecht, is an expert on the subject.
“You know,” he said in a recent interview, “sometimes you do things, and you really don’t think far enough ahead to what could happen.”
Clearly, this is a guy who can speak from experience.
By all accounts, Engelbrecht, a member of the Two Creeks Town Board, accepted cash from a wind farm company shortly before voting on an ordinance to authorize and regulate such farms in his town. Here are the details of the deal, according to a state Department of Justice investigation into the matter:
In 2004, the firm, Navitas Energy Corp. of Minneapolis, blew into Manitowoc County looking for property owners willing to lease property for wind turbines. Engelbrecht and his wife jumped at the chance, and Navitas paid the pair $1,000 for simply showing interest.
That summer, Engelbrecht signed an agreement giving the firm the exclusive rights, for five years, to construct wind turbines on his properties in Two Creeks and Mishicot. In exchange, Navitas was to pay him $500 a year. In addition, Engelbrecht would receive $4,500 per turbine for at least 20 years. Eventually, he signed a deal to let Navitas set up two turbines on his Mishicot farm.
It looked like smooth sailing for Engelbrecht – until local critics caught wind of the deal. Another Two Creeks Town Board member, Kenneth Duvenek, also had a lease agreement with Navitas. Neither ended up with turbines on their property.
In fall 2004, the Manitowoc County Board OK’d the wind farm proposal, and it breezed through the three-member Two Creeks Town Board later that year, with Engelbrecht and Duvenek voting in favor.
“Mr. Duvenek and Mr. Engelbrecht had a substantial direct financial interest in the adoption of the wind ordinance at the time they voted,” concluded Assistant Attorney General Paul Barnett in his 19-page review of the matter.
But Barnett decided not to prosecute the pair because he believed an exception in the state’s conflict-of-interest statute would make it difficult to win the case. Instead, he favored a public education campaign for local government officials. The common-sense message: Steer clear of entering into “a contract involving many thousands of dollars while related matters are . . . expected to come before them in their official capacities.”
Today, Engelbrecht defends his actions by saying he was simply trying to turn a buck on his struggling farm. “Why should my land become worthless when I become a town officer?” asked Engelbrecht, who also transports others’ livestock.
So did he alert the Wisconsin Towns Association board to his past problem when it was choosing a new president in July?
“Why?” Engelbrecht responded.
Rick Stadelman, executive director of the towns group, said he didn’t think the wind farm case should have kept Engelbrecht from being promoted to president of the statewide organization.
What’s more, Stadelman was dismissive of the suggestion that the group needed to do more to inform local officials about ethical issues. The association, he said, already provides extensive training on such issues.
“I can’t make sure,” Stadelman said, “that every single officer of the 6,000 town officers does everything that the public can perceive as correct and clean.”
With Engelbrecht at the group’s helm, that goes without saying.
By Daniel Bice
8 September 2007
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