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June 25, 2019

Abigail Bostwick/Lakeland TimesMercer School Board president Noel Brandt was one of five board members seen in Iron County Court on Monday.
Abigail Bostwick/Lakeland Times

Mercer School Board president Noel Brandt was one of five board members seen in Iron County Court on Monday.
4/25/2019 7:26:00 AM
Judge drops felonies in Mercer School Board case
Abigail Bostwick
of the Lakeland Times

Five felony cases against current and former Mercer School Board members were dropped Monday morning in Iron County Circuit Court.

Judge Patrick Madden heard the cases of Mercer School Board president Noel Brandt, 43, charged with one count of misconduct in office and acting in excess of authority; Michele "Miki" Holmstrom, 45, with the same charge; Denise Thompson and Colleen "Kelly" Kohegyi, 62, for charges of falsely exercising a public office function; and treasurer Deanna Pierpont, 76, with two counts of misconduct in office and acting in excess of authority.

The charges were filed by Iron County District Attorney Matt Tingstad about two weeks ago. Between last Thursday, Friday and Monday morning, each defendant's legal counsel filed a motion to dismiss their individual cases.

"I am not prepared to argue today on the motions," Tingstad said. "There was not enough notice."

Monday's court was scheduled for initial appearances.

The charges stemmed from a long investigation into a letter dated May 1, 2018 signed by all five, giving an explanation for questions regarding a recent school district audit to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI), based on the criminal complaints.

The letter aimed to explain audit questions regarding a DPI audit of Fund 80 monies. It was signed by Pierpont, Thompson, Holmstrom, Kohegi and Brandt at the bottom.

Madden heard Brandt's case first. Represented by Jonas Bednarek, it was noted the complaint did not establish probable cause nor criminal intent.

"There is no dishonest advantage here," Bednarek said of his client. "A misconduct case requires more ... either some personal gain or some intent to defraud."

Madden agreed, citing the complaint did not meet the state requirements to move forward with a charge without establishing "mens rea" and "actus rea."

"You have to have a guilty mind and a guilty act to commit a crime," Madden observed, dismissing Brandt's criminal case. "This motion is warranted and granted."

Thompson and Pierpont appeared together with attorney James Donald McKenzie. McKenzie said his clients were falsely accused of misconduct.

For Pierpont, the second charge against her alleged illegal destruction of a video taken at a school board meeting. McKenzie said the video was personal property, and taken by Pierpont for herself only. Videos were not required by law to be made or kept at school board meetings, he said. The particular video is said to have contained swearing and altercation at the board.

"There was no intent to defraud ... or commit a criminal act," McKenzie indicated. "That was a personal video that Mrs. Pierpont was doing for her own benefit."

Tingstad argued all Mercer School Board meetings were recorded in recent years, month by month, demonstrating it was regular practice there.

"All these meetings were video recorded," he said. "We don't have to say by who ... obviously these are questions for the jury."

Madden said he believed the district attorney to be an "honorable and conscientious public servant" who "acts with honor," but a crime could not be committed without mens rea.

"If you only read the top and bottom of the May letter there may be an indication of nefarious activity, but if you read the middle ... (they) were trying to straighten out a problem facing the community," Madden agreed, granting the motion and dismissing the case.

Lawyer Steven Lucareli represented Holmstrom, reflecting the first several arguments in the matter.

Tingstad referred back to the DPI letter. "This letter itself creates probable cause," he said, adding again he had not had time to prepare to argue the dismissal motions in all five cases.

"I didn't even get to see the motion before coming into court, your honor," he said before Madden dropped the final case.

A call to Tingstad regarding refiling of charges was not immediately returned. He indicated last week to The Lakeland Times that parts were still under investigation in the matter. Sheriff's department reports involving that investigation which led to the charges have yet to be released due to that pending investigation.

The school board accepted Brandt's resignation at its regular meeting Monday night.

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