WesMin grant applicants still waiting for answers

Natalie Heckert has learned to make a really sweet apple pie. It wasn't by choice though; she had to. After being duped by Sheila Barsness, the former director of WesMin Resource Conservation and Development who allegedly fabricated numerous orga...

Natalie Heckert has learned to make a really sweet apple pie. It wasn't by choice though; she had to.

After being duped by Sheila Barsness, the former director of WesMin Resource Conservation and Development who allegedly fabricated numerous organizations and grants in 2006, Heckert was left with many sour apples - debt, lost wages and time, no job.

What Barsness promised Heckert - a $600,000 grant to develop a statewide fitness challenge - initially sounded sweet enough for Heckert to quit the full-time corporate job she loved and hire a part-time assistant.

"I don't do anything a little bit," she said during a recent interview. "It's my mission and passion in life to help more people. This was a great opportunity to help more people. It was a good, good project."

She invested her own money, time and energy into designing the challenge; she even reserved the Metrodome for its kickoff.


But when the grant money never came - funding was set to begin January 1, 2006 - she started to worry.

"I thought it was getting expensive," Heckert said, adding that she personally funded about $50,000 for the challenge. "I'm lucky I kept one eye on my conservative background because I would have gone under."

A Minnesota Attorney General investigation then ensued thanks to Gary Brever, a Parkers Prairie farmer who also lost thousands of dollars because of Barsness' alleged actions.

Barsness has since been charged with three counts of felony theft by false representation. A settlement conference hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. on January 8 in Douglas County District Court.

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.

Also under the assurance, WesMin agreed to pay Brever $42,624.65 for produce for the Food For Folk project and to pay Heckert $15,602.53 for costs incurred for the project.

To date, Heckert has only received $4,250; the last two payments - just $100 and $150.

Brever is unable to say how much he's been paid, as when he signed the settlement, he agreed to a gag order that prohibits him from disclosing the information.


"We make periodic payments, monthly at this point," Lyle Hovland, WesMin board chair, said last week. "So far, we're doing what we're supposed to be doing."

Floating WesMin's debt, however, hasn't been easy on Heckert, her husband and their children. They've made significant sacrifices, including putting their house on the market (they've since taken it off), downgrading vehicles and cutting back on anything extra.

But thanks to hard work and optimistic determination, Heckert is turning those sour applies into a sweet apple pie - and is fighting her way back.

"It's taught me you have two options - you either work or you work," she said, adding that it's upwards of 80 to 90 hours each week. "You can take the wind out of my sails, but you'd have to kill me to kill NATS [her personal fitness system and business]. That's part of me."

She continued, "I still have my health and my energy. I'm Mrs. Natalie Nice because I believe that's the way we should be."

WesMin is doing its best to move ahead as well. Although the non-profit agency received a $20,000 insurance payment for employee dishonesty, it didn't cover the entire $58,000 judgment. So it asked its 13 participating counties to contribute.

"We wanted to clear the judgment and meet the obligation that was set on us," Hovland said. "Obviously, we wouldn't have wanted to do that."

Several counties have already contributed, and he anticipates more will during the coming year. If WesMin receives restitution, each county would be reimbursed for its contribution.


Since the fallout, the non-profit has strengthened its committees and scrutinized its entire structure, Hovland said. And although the board meets monthly, a new director has yet to be hired.

"It's been a work in progress here to try to get everything straightened out so we can function properly," he said. "We're concerned about our credibility, and when that gets stomped on a little bit, you're a little gun shy about doing things. We're doing our best to move ahead."

As for its lone asset, Smokey Timbers Girl Scout Camp on Lake Miltona, Hovland believes it's not in jeopardy at this point; protecting it was one of the reasons WesMin asked for the counties' help to clear the judgment.

"It's always been our intent that when the Smokey Timbers group achieved its own status, we would hand the title over," he said.

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