Dubuque School System Administrator and Elementary School Principal Sentenced to Federal Prison

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FILE PHOTO: Signage is seen at the United States Department of Justice headquarters in Washington, D.C.

A former private school administrator and elementary school principal, who stole over $500,000 from the school system at which he worked, was sentenced on June 28, 2022, to more than three years in federal prison.

Todd Charles Wessels, age 50, from Dubuque, Iowa, received the prison term after a November 1, 2021 guilty plea to one count of wire fraud.  In his plea agreement, and at a sentencing hearing, Wessels admitted he was the Curriculum and Technology Director for a private, religious, not-for-profit school district in Dubuque.  Wessels was responsible for ensuring that the school district met the technology needs of approximately 1,800 students at its high school, middle school, and elementary schools.  Before 2016, Wessels also served in a dual role as the principal of one of the elementary schools.

Beginning sometime prior to June 2011, and continuing into early 2020, Wessels devised and executed a scheme to make purchases for his own benefit with the school district’s funds.  Wessels made purchases of pre-paid debit cards using the school district’s store credit cards at area businesses upon the false and fraudulent pretense that he needed funds for “apps” for students’ computers.  Wessels then electronically transferred the balances of the pre-paid debit cards to another account that he controlled at PayPal, Inc., an electronic payment transfer system based in California.  Wessels had, without the school district’s knowledge, falsely and fraudulent opened the PayPal account in the school district’s name but under the handle “WENWESS”.  Finally, Wessels provided the school district receipts for the purchases of the pre-paid debit cards on the false and fraudulent pretense that the use of the store credit cards was for legitimate purchases.  Wessels also sold the school district’s computer equipment on third-party Internet websites without its knowledge or permission.

Based on available records, Wessels admitted he stole over $500,000 as a part of his scheme.  Due to a lack of a written inventory and lack of records before 2011, however, the full extent of his scheme remains unknown.  The school district hired Wessels in 2001, and he was one of its highest paid employees, earning nearly $100,000 at the time the scheme was discovered.  During the time that Wessels was perpetuating his scheme against the school district, the school district was experiencing financial difficulties and closing a number of schools as a result.

In July 2019, a new chief administrator at the school district began looking into Wessels’s spending practices.  Wessels repeatedly lied to administrators and submitted fraudulent invoices and receipts to them in order to conceal his scheme to defraud.  At meetings in January and February 2020, Wessels provided hardcopy versions of false, fraudulent, and fictitious spreadsheets purporting to show the apps he had purchased.  In truth, Wessels had made hundreds of purchases for food, hotel stays and other travel-related expenses for himself and his family, tickets to off-Broadway shows, new pools each year, and expensive electronics such as a virtual reality headset, robots, and Apple televisions.  When law enforcement began investigating Wessels, he repeatedly lied to law enforcement officers and hid stolen items in his house during a search.

Wessels was sentenced in Cedar Rapids by United States District Court Judge C.J. Williams.  Wessels was sentenced to 41 months’ imprisonment.  He was ordered to make restitution in the amount of $503,539 and also to repay $3,927 in legal fees that his victim incurred during the course of the investigation.  Wessels must also serve a three-year term of supervised release after the prison term.  There is no parole in the federal system.

At the sentencing hearing, Judge Williams found that Wessels’s fraud was a “systemic, calculated fleecing of the school district.”  Judge Williams also observed that Wessels had not attempted to repay a cent of restitution to his victim since admitting guilt in November.

Wessels was released on the bond previously set and is to surrender to the Bureau of Prisons on a date yet to be set.

The case was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Timothy L. Vavricek and investigated by the Dubuque Police Department. 

Court file information at https://ecf.iand.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/login.pl

The case file number is 21-CR-1031.

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