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Former sheriff’s deputy gets probation with 90 days in jail for embezzlement from union

December 22, 2018
Former Dane County sheriff's deputy Joel Wagner, left, speaks in court Friday alongside his lawyer, Chris Van Wagner.

A former Dane County sheriff’s deputy, convicted in July of embezzling money from the deputies’ union that he served as treasurer, was sentenced Friday to five years of probation, with 90 days of it to be spent in jail.

Joel M. Wagner, 55, of Sun Prairie, who retired from the Sheriff’s Office in early 2017, told Dane County Circuit Judge Jill Karofsky that he took the money — in all about $32,000 that he has repaid through a loan from his mother — because his wife has a condition called compulsive buying disorder, and despite her six-figure income she has continually spent the couple deep into debt.

Wagner said his wife is seeking help for her addiction. He said he did not bring up her addiction to demonize her, because although he has filed for divorce in order to financially protect himself, he still loves her.

The money that Wagner took from the Dane County Deputy Sheriff’s Association — through unauthorized credit card use, reimbursement for mileage for road trips he didn’t take and skimming money collected for union events — wasn’t used to pay down the debts accumulated because of his wife’s spending addiction or to live luxuriously.

“Why did I take the money? So I had some money to spend on my son and daughter for birthday and Christmas presents,” Wagner said during an emotional 23-minute statement in which he talked extensively about the extreme financial burdens caused by his wife’s condition. “I gave my son some spending money while he was in college. I bought presents for my parents as well, and I spent some money on ball games.”

Some of the improperly spent union funds were used to buy Milwaukee Brewers tickets through StubHub.

“I am not proud of what I did, I am ashamed,” Wagner said. “I felt trapped going in the wrong direction down a one-way street. I did it so I could bury my head in the sand and avoid that 2,000-pound elephant in the room.”

But Karofsky said Wagner had other options, such as bankruptcy, but instead he didn’t want to ask for help.

“You say you were pushed to the point of desperation,” Karofsky said, “but it pushed you to the point of stealing from your family, really, the men and women who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with you every day.”

Karofsky said that not sentencing Wagner to some time in jail, as his lawyer, Chris Van Wagner, had asked — in part to avoid losing the two jobs Wagner now works to make ends meet — would unduly depreciate the seriousness of what Wagner did.

Deputy James Brigham, who is on the board of directors of the Dane County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, said that in a past, unrelated case, when another law enforcement officer was caught stealing from his union, Wagner’s reaction was one of disdain, and Wagner said the officer should have been given a longer sentence than the 15-month prison sentence he received.

“All the while, (Wagner) is stealing from us,” Brigham said.

In the past, when going through the Dane County Deputy Sheriff’s Association’s treasury report, Brigham said, Wagner would pound his fist on the table and say, “If there’s one penny missing, I’m going to be the one going to prison.”

“How ironic,” Brigham said. “It sounds like the defense is going to make the argument that he shouldn’t spend any time incarcerated. It’s almost laughable given his own statements and his own words.”

It’s possible that because of his former job as a Dane County sheriff’s deputy, Wagner will serve his time in another county. Karofsky ruled that Wagner could serve his jail sentence in Sauk, Rock or Iowa counties. He was ordered to report to jail in February.

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