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Paynesville Press - October 23, 2002

Paynesville Township cleared by grand jury

By Michael Jacobson

A Stearns County Grand Jury has failed to issue any indictments on Paynesville Township. The case - which stems from findings by the state auditor, released last March - was heard by a grand jury in two days of testimony in September.

The state auditor's report, dated March 7, 2002, was prompted by citizen concerns and found four items for concern from September 1999 to January 2002: that a conflict of interest may have occurred when a supervisor performed work for the township; that the supervisor may have claimed payment for work not performed and excessive payments for secretarial work; that bid requirements may not have been followed on a township purchase (the township did use a statewide bidding service to purchase its tractor); and that an improper sale of state property may have occurred.

Charges of conflict of interest were made publicly at numerous township meetings against former supervisor Warren Nehring, who also owned a septic cleaning and landscaping business during part of his tenure on the township board. But the charges also involved other board members, who approved Nehring's work and the other actions in question.

"I was never worried about it because I never felt guilty," said Nehring, a township supervisor for six years who now serves on the board of directors for the North Fork of the Crow River Watershed District.

He calls the whole affair "dirty politics," especially since the auditor's report was released right before the township election last March and then used against him in the election campaign. "They accomplished one thing," he said. "They got me out of office."

While state law allows a conflict of interest exception, the township did not follow all the statutory provisions to qualify for it, the auditor's report concludes.

Nehring said he and the other supervisors started doing small projects for the township because they couldn't get anyone else to do the work. One day a week became a work day. "We weren't thinking about money," he said. "We were trying to get things done. We just attacked (the work)."

While unintentionally they may have failed to follow the letter of the law, their goal was always to better the township, said Nehring. Without a staff, "somebody had to do it," he explained.

They found they could get a lot more done for the township, Nehring said, using heavy equipment instead of shovels. He still takes pride in the improvements in the township appearance during his service as supervisor.

The auditor's office has investigative powers over local governments and its investigative division typically handles 300 cases per year. Once the auditor's report was complete, it was forwarded to the county attorney, who in this case offered the evidence to a grand jury, which found no indictments.

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