In this undated photo released by the Ingham County Sheriff’s Office, Rev. Jonathan Wehrle is shown. Wehrle, pastor of St. Martha Church in Okemos, Mich., has been placed on leave. The Catholic Diocese of Lansing say that auditors uncovered a “possible significant embezzlement” at the Roman Catholic St. Martha Church. (Ingham County Sheriff’s Office via AP)
MASON, Mich. — The attorney for a Michigan priest accused of bilking a Catholic church that’s missing millions of dollars asked a judge Friday to authorize the release of $800,000 seized by police to his client.
The Rev. Jonathan Wehrle is charged with embezzling $100,000 or more from St. Martha Parish in Okemos, Michigan, but prosecutors say an ongoing audit shows an estimated $5 million is missing from the Lansing-area Roman Catholic church.
Wehrle’s attorney argued during a Friday court hearing that the priest and his mother should have access to nearly $800,000 seized by Michigan State Police as part of the ongoing investigation, the Lansing State Journal reported.
A judge who heard that request must decide whether there’s enough evidence to send Wehrle to trial. The hearing resumes Sept. 1 with testimony from Bishop Earl Boyea.
Wehrle, who founded St. Martha Parish in 1988, was placed on administrative leave by the Diocese of Lansing on May 9.
Prosecutors filed an application in June for a lien against an 11,000-square-foot home the priest owns that’s worth more than $1 million and sits on 10 acres. Wehrle’s lawyer, Lawrence Nolan, has said money from Wehrle’s family could have paid for it.
The lien application states that Wehrle had “sole access” to St. Martha Parish’s finances and offerings, “with no oversight within the parish” and lists 10 residences Wehrle owns or has owned since 1988 in several Michigan communities and in Florida.
Prosecutors have said that on May 11, one day after the embezzlement investigation became public, State Police learned that Wehrle had entered a Huntington Bank branch and tried to withdraw more than $700,000 from his accounts.
Priest in embezzlement case wants $800K from frozen accounts
Lansing State Journa;
MASON — The lawyer for a priest accused of embezzling from an Okemos church argued Friday that his client and his client’s mother should have access to nearly $800,000 seized by Michigan State Police.
It’s not the first time the Rev. Jonathan Wehrle has tried to access those funds in recent months.
On May 11, a day after news broke of an embezzlement investigation at St. Martha Parish in Okemos, State Police learned Wehrle entered a Huntington Bank branch and attempted to withdraw more than $700,000 from his accounts, according to court records.
The teller at the bank, having seen news coverage on the investigation, notified Michigan State Police. Wehrle was arrested two days later
Wehrle has been charged with one count of embezzlement of $100,000 or more, but prosecutors have said they have enough evidence to add another four counts of the same charge.
Police and prosecutors have alleged Wehrle used money from St. Martha Parish to pay for work and materials at his Williamston home. An ongoing audit, prosecutors have said, estimates about $5 million is missing from the parish.
Wehrle, who founded St. Martha Parish in 1988, was placed on administrative leave by the Diocese of Lansing May 9. He is currently free on a personal recognizance bond.
In June, prosecutors filed an application for a lien against Wehrle’s $1.4 million Noble Road home. In the application, prosecutors described Wehrle’s attempt to withdraw money from his Huntington Bank accounts and recounted the investigation up until that point.
The document said Wehrle had “sole access” to St. Martha’s finances and offerings, “with no oversight within the parish.”
It said a Plante Moran audit indicated Wehrle used checks from St. Martha’s to pay “mortgage bills, utility expenses, property taxes, personal property (e.g., televisions and electronics), and countless home improvement or construction projects at 1400 Noble Road.”
The application lists 10 residences that Wehrle owns or has owned since 1988 in Mason, Williamston, Okemos, Pleasant Lake, Delton and in Florida.
Besides the money Plante Moran claims Wehrle spent on his home in Williamston, the auditing firm traced more than $200,000 from St. Martha’s bank accounts to expenses related to the Pleasant Lake home, according to the application.
The property in Pleasant Lake was sold in March for $700,000. Wehrle’s lawyer Lawrence Nolan has said the home belonged to Wehrle’s mother, Dorothy.
Prosecutors in July served Wehrle with notice of seizure of his bank accounts and the Williamston estate. The seizures, made under the omnibus forfeiture act, require a criminal conviction to proceed.
Nolan submitted objections to those seizures Aug. 2, arguing some of the money belonged to Wehrle’s mother and the seizure of Wehrle’s own accounts “would leave the defendant penniless and with no way to pay for his own necessities, including medical care, household expenses and attorney fees.”
At issue are six separate accounts: Dorothy Wehrle’s social security account, which Nolan estimates has about $800 in it currently; two accounts with a combined amount of about $28,000 meant for Dorothy Wehrle’s funeral costs; an account with about $649,000 from the sale of Dorothy Wehrle’s Pleasant Lake home; Rev. Jonathan Wehrle’s checking account, which contains about $14,000; and Rev. Jonathan Wehrle’s savings account which has about $109,000.
Nolan argued Friday that money in the first four accounts belongs to Dorothy Wehrle and should not be part of the seizure. He said Rev. Jonathan Wehrle is a cosigner on at least three accounts “as a matter of convenience.”
“It’s her money,” Nolan said after the hearing. “People should not have their property taken from them when they’re not involved.”
Nolan said some of the figures in the accounts are estimates since all of Rev. Jonathan Wehrle’s financial records were seized by the Michigan State Police. Nolan said so far he has scanned about a dozen of the 75 bank boxes state police seized that contain financial records from Wehrle’s home and St. Martha Parish.
Nolan said he believes the money from Dorothy and Jonathan Wehrle’s accounts was sent to the state police but cannot obtain records to verify that.
“I don’t know where the money is,” Nolan said. “We’ve got 75 banker boxes, probably 63 to go, and I still don’t have a handle on where the money is.”
At Friday’s hearing, Allen said he would free up Dorothy Wehrle’s social security account upon a written stipulation from Nolan and Deputy Chief Assistant Prosecutor John Dewane.
Allen said he will decide on the other accounts when Rev. Jonathan Wehrle’s preliminary hearing resumes Sept. 1. The hearing, which began July 7, will determine whether there is enough evidence for the case to proceed to trial.
Contact Beth LeBlanc at (517) 377-1167, [email protected] or on Twitter @LSJBethLeBlanc.
Records: Priest admitted in 2007 to using parish checks for home construction
Lansing State Journal
A decade before he was charged with embezzlement, Rev. Jonathan Wehrle admitted to writing checks from St. Martha Parish to pay for the construction of his $1.48 million home.
In November 2007, Wehrle told lawyer Michael Ryan that at times he transferred money from his personal accounts to the church’s account, then issued checks from the church’s account for personal use.
“Why would you do that?” Ryan asked, according to the transcript from the 2007 deposition.
“Convenience,” Wehrle said.
Police and prosecutors have alleged Wehrle used money from St. Martha Parish to pay for work and materials at his Williamston home. At a hearing last week, Assistant Ingham County Prosecutor Andrew Stevens said an ongoing audit estimates about $5 million is missing from the parish.
Wehrle’s attorney argues there was an understanding between Wehrle and the Diocese of Lansing regarding use of parish funds.
Wehrle was placed on administrative leave from St. Martha Parish in May and charged days later with embezzlement of $100,000 or more.
Copies of the transcript were filed amid hundreds of pages of information in a 2007 civil lawsuit between Wehrle and contractors involved in the the construction of the priest’s home in Williamston.
The transcript and other documentation hint at Wehrle’s family investments, his history of home construction and his opulent plans for his Noble Road home.
The check from St. Martha Parish
Russell Martin, a subcontractor, filed a civil lawsuit against Wehrle in April 2007 for about $72,391 in unpaid bills and interest related to the construction of Wehrle’s home
Wehrle responded to Martin’s claim in July 2007 with a counter claim that alleged steel trusses Martin provided for the house’s foundation could not sustain the “gravity loads of a residential home.” He claimed damages of about $1.7 million and said the home would need to be torn down and rebuilt.
The lawsuit would continue for several years, involving several lawyers and contractors, before a settlement was reached in 2012 that allowed Wehrle to repair the home.
Included in the court file is a copy of a November 2005 check from St. Martha Parish to Martin for $30,000. It includes what appears to be Wehrle’s signature.
In his 2007 deposition, Ryan questioned Wehrle about the check and whether it was common practice to “comingle” personal and church funds.
Wehrle said his personal savings were kept in a bank in Williamston, while the parish account was kept in a bank in Okemos. Wehrle said he also had investments at both banks.
Rather than driving from one bank to the other, Wehrle said he would sometimes transfer money from personal savings or investment accounts to the church account, then make a check from the church for personal costs.
Ryan asked Wehrle whether the Diocese of Lansing or the parish prohibited a priest from those types of transfers.
“I’m not aware,” Wehrle said, according to transcripts.
“You’re not aware? Is there a parish bookkeeper that I should direct my subpoena to?” Ryan asked.
“That would be me,” Wehrle said.
Court records indicate Ryan later attempted to submit a subpoena for St. Martha’s financial records, but the subpoena was quashed.
Wehrle’s checks from St. Martha for his home’s construction costs were also mentioned briefly during a hearing involving the lawsuit in August 2010 in front of former Ingham Circuit Judge James Giddings, according to court records.
Lawrence Nolan, Wehrle’s lawyer in both the current and 2007 cases, said he and his client do not deny that Wehrle wrote checks from St. Martha Parish. He said Wehrle maintains there was an understanding regarding those transactions between Wehrle and the diocese.
Former Lansing Bishop Carl Mengeling testified last week at a preliminary hearing that he never spoke to Wehrle about using parish funds to pay for personal expenses. Lansing Bishop Earl Boyea is expected to testify when that hearing continues in September. The purpose of the hearing is to determine whether there is enough evidence for the case to proceed to trial.
Former Lansing Bishop Kenneth Povish, who was bishop at the time of St. Martha’s founding in 1988, died in 2003.
Nolan said he doesn’t argue that Wehrle’s accounting practices were “substandard,” but “there’s a huge difference between poor accounting and criminal activity.”
Ingham County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Lisa McCormick said the statute of limitations for embezzlement charges is six years, so any potential activity in 2007 could not result in criminal charges.
She said the investigation into Wehrle is ongoing among Michigan State Police and auditors at Plante Moran.
“We believe that we can sustain our burden of proof in this case,” McCormick said.
Michael Diebold, a spokesman for the diocese, said he could not comment on potential evidence, and referred questions regarding the 2007 case to the prosecutor’s office.
The diocese has said it discovered financial irregularities at St. Martha during an audit and referred the case to the Michigan State Police.
The diocese has said recent changes in the diocesan financial policy require audits at parishes every three to five years instead of any time a priest changes parish.
The diocese also published an insert in church bulletins regarding parish financial procedures that included a hotline to report potential financial misconduct at parishes.
The house in Williamston
Among the dozens of pages of transcripts from Wehrle’s 2007 deposition, are details of the lavish home he built in the mid-2000s in Williamston.
Court records indicate the home is about 14,000 square feet, though county records list it at about 11,345 square feet.
In Wehrle’s deposition, he referenced plans for a basement swimming pool, wine cellar, and home theater. He said he conceived plans for the home while lying awake at night and worked with an architect to bring those plans to fruition.
Wehrle said he had designed and build eight to 10 homes prior to his Williamston home.
Wehrle told the lawyer his plans for the home at 1400 Noble Road were driven by the recent purchases of pipe organs from theaters in Grand Rapids, New York and California.
“I wanted a house that would be large enough to contain 32 ranks of a theater pipe organ,” Wehrle said, according to the transcript. “It had to have a living room of enough volume for the sound to come out. We’re not talking about a small electronic organ with a little speaker, but big pipe chambers. The house had to be well enough constructed to support this instrument.”
Wehrle told the lawyer he needed just two bedrooms, but in order to attain “balance and scale” he built eight.
“I was watching Bing Crosby’s Holiday Inn and thought, well gee, that would be a good idea except that I, being a Catholic priest, I’m always busy on holidays,” Wehrle said, according to the transcript. “So then I came up with the idea, since we’re close to Michigan State University, that I could have a bed and breakfast…”
When Ryan asked Wehrle “where the heck (are) you getting the money for all this?” Wehrle responded that both he and his father had invested in a number of properties over the years.
“…It’s been pretty successful,” he said.
Nolan said, to his knowledge, the home was never used for a bed and breakfast, nor was it torn down and rebuilt.
Contact Beth LeBlanc at (517) 377-1167, [email protected] or on Twitter @LSJBethLeBlanc.