TRIPP, S.D. (KELO) — Small towns seem like safe havens for their residents. Everybody knows everybody else and people are generally trusting.
But two city finance officers in southeastern KELOLAND have betrayed the trust of their communities.
Springfield’s former city finance officer, 36-year-old Ashlea Pruss, pleaded guilty to stealing between $5,000 and $100,000 over a two year period, by using the City’s debit card for personal expenses.
Pruss will be sentenced January 7.
However, an even bigger and longer-term theft took place in Tripp, South Dakota.
Tripp’s city finance officer was able to get away with stealing more than $500,000.
Tripp, South Dakota, has seen better days.
Several businesses in the town of 647 have closed. The infrastructure needs updating. But even worse, people here have been betrayed by a woman they trusted with their tax money.
“We’ve lost a lot in Tripp. The school’s almost gotten shut down; we lost our nursing home and then a grocery store. Maybe that money could have helped fund something else,” Dave Santos, who’s lived in Tripp for 22 years, said.
44-year-old Jennifer Friederich was Tripp’s longtime city finance officer. She is currently awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to embezzlement, forgery and destruction of public records.
Former employee Roger Smith says there were signs when he worked for the city between 2010 and 2015.
Kennecke: Did you ever suspect anything?
Smith: Yes, a little bit, yes.
Kennecke: You suspected back then?
Kennecke: And what did you do about it?
Smith: I told my immediate supervisor
Smith says he became suspicious of Friederich when utility companies called City Hall to say they hadn’t been paid. Friederich told him the check was in the mail. Smith claims he also reported witnessing Friederich print out checks to herself.
Kennecke: And what happened?
Smith: Nothing. We just swept it under the rug and it went on.
Kennecke: When you say swept under the rug, what do you mean by that?
Smith: I mean nothing ever happened. It went nowhere.
Then in 2018, State auditors discovered that Friederich had given them fake bank statements and accounting records. Upon deeper investigation, auditors found that Friederich had paid herself an extra $132,831 over the last six years.
“In 2011 she overpaid herself $76,000. That’s more than she or I made in a year,” Smith said.
The Department of Legislative Audit’s review also found that Friederich racked up nearly $250,000 on the City’s credit cards and for cash advances.
She also paid off her own credit cards with $18,814 of the city’s money. She also used city money to pay nearly $6,000 in personal cell phone bills.
Investigators say there were several unexplained cash deposits to her personal bank account.
“I was a little shocked because for the most part, we pay our bills in cash; so then my thought was, ‘where did all the cash go?'” Santos said.
Auditors nailed down to $412,696 that Friederich’s embezzled, but couldn’t determine how much cash she may have stolen.
Tripp Mayor Victor Olson had agreed to do an interview with KELOLAND Investigates, but when we arrived with our camera, Olson called Tripp’s City Attorney, Scott Swier.
Swier: You want to do an interview on camera with Vic?
Kennecke: That’s correct.
Swier: We’re not going to do that, unfortunately.
Kennecke: What, why not?
Swier: Because I’m advising them as their attorney not to.
End of story.
Kennecke: But Mr. Olson is the mayor of the town. And he has a responsibility as an elected official to address the issues here.
Swier: Angela, you can read the special report; everything that we would talk about would be in there. We’re not going to do an on-camera interview.
Mayor Olson: I think I told you, no camera.
KELOLAND Investigates pointed out that the auditor’s report doesn’t give specific actions that the City is taking.
Kennecke: It doesn’t tell me what the City is doing differently though.
Swier: Angela, I’m not going to argue with you. We’re not talking to you. We’re not required to. Everything is in the report, end of story.
You may remember Scott Swier was also the attorney for the former Mid Central Educational Cooperative while it was caught up in the GEAR UP scandal. Swier never allowed anyone at Mid Central or their board members to talk to KELOLAND Investigates either.
Off-camera, Tripp’s mayor did confirm that they had hired a new finance officer, got new software and implemented more checks and balances, but townspeople want answers about how Friederich got away with it in the first place.
Kennecke: And the fact that it wasn’t caught earlier, does that surprise you?
Santos: Yeah it does. You would think there would be better record keeping; checks and balance.
Kennecke: And now, do you have faith in the government, the city government?
Santos: Not always.
“They want to know why nobody was checking on it. They want to know where their money is at; where was the council at? Why weren’t they doing their jobs,” Smith said.
Kennecke: The fact that this went on for so long here, what does that tell you?
Jerry Boeding: It tells me somebody wasn’t watching what was going on.
Mayor Olson and a city counselor KELOLAND Investigates spoke with say they’d be happy to talk to us after Friederich is sentenced on Dec. 30.
KELOLAND Investigates has also learned that while Friederich worked for the city for more than 15 years, auditors couldn’t look back any further than 2012, because no city accounting records exist prior to that date.
When we attempted to track down Friederich at her home in Tripp, no one answered the door.
Friederich is facing up to 25 years in prison. Prosecutors are asking her to pay restitution of $517,000 back to the city of Tripp, plus the cost of the special state audit, which was $38,000.