Former WesMin director pleads guilty to theft
An agreement was reached Wednesday during a hearing in Douglas County District Court for Sheila Barsness of Brandon, the suspect accused of fabricating grants and organizations.
Barsness, the former director of WesMin Resource Conservation and Development (WesMin RC&D), pleaded guilty to one count of felony theft by false representation in each of the three complaints, according to Douglas County Attorney Chris Karpan.
He noted that the victims in each complaint are Gary Brever, Natalie Heckert and WesMin RC&D.
Barsness reportedly promised Brever and Heckert that they would receive grants for the projects they were doing - a food program and a fitness challenge - but the funding sources didn't exist.
Part of the plea agreement is that she will complete 1,000 hours of volunteer community service, which is monitored by her probation officer; pay $12,000 in restitution on the day of sentencing; and continue to follow all of the treatment plans and recommendations of her mental health providers.
Karpan explained that a pre-sentence investigation was ordered and is to be completed by a probation officer.
He said in an e-mail to the newspaper Thursday morning that Barsness agreed to sign releases allowing the probation officer to talk to her psychiatrist and other mental health professionals whom she is working with.
Based on the recommendation of Barsness' treating psychiatrist, if the court accepts the plea agreement, she would not spend time in the county jail. However, Barsness could still spend time in state prison if she does not complete all the conditions of her 10-year probationary sentence, added Karpan.
Because the plea has not yet been accepted, Karpan didn't want to make a formal statement.
However, he said the defense provided him with signed releases allowing him to speak with Barsness' mental health providers, which in a criminal case such as this, is relatively unusual. But, he added, there were some highly unusual aspects of the case.
"It is fair to say that some of the information I received from her mental health providers was one of the reasons I opted for significant community service instead of jail time," said Karpan.
Karpan added that other conditions of probation will be set by the court at the time of sentencing, which will likely take place in early July.
"The county attorney and I came to an agreement and Sheila rendered a plea of guilty," said Kent Marshall, Barsness' attorney, in a telephone interview Wednesday evening.
Marshall noted that this was a strange case because Barsness didn't appear to have any real rhyme or reason to what she did and because there wasn't any profit from any of the fabricated grants.
"That's the one thing in this case that didn't come out. Sheila didn't do this to make a profit," said Marshall. "There are some mental health issues that are being addressed. That's why this agreement was made."
Marshall believes it was a good, fair plea agreement and that while putting Barsness in jail may satisfy some people, it would not benefit anyone.
"This is a sad case because Sheila's not a bad person," he said. "I feel badly for Sheila. This has been horrible for her. There is another part to her that needs to be addressed and she is now getting the appropriate help."
Barsness, former director of WesMin Resource Conservation and Development, allegedly fabricated numerous organizations and grants in 2006.
A Minnesota Attorney General investigation ensued, and Barsness was later charged with three counts of felony theft by false representations.
In December 2006, Barsness submitted her letter of resignation (she would have been fired by the WesMin board had she not), and in May 2007, the WesMin board voluntarily entered into an assurance of discontinuation with the attorney general that ensures the board take steps for more oversight of WesMin's daily operations.