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Rhonda Reese in court

Rhonda Reese appears in Columbia County Circuit Court on Wednesday. 

The former executive director of the Midwest Horse Fair was charged Wednesday with 61 felony counts stemming from the alleged embezzlement of nearly $239,000 from the organization over a period of more than five years.

Rhonda J. Reese, 51, of Columbus, who ran the Midwest Horse Fair from 2007 until she was abruptly fired in July, was charged in Columbia County Circuit Court with 41 counts of fraudulent writings by a corporation officer and 20 counts of theft in a business setting.

Reese appeared in court Wednesday, where a signature bond was continued. She will be back in court on April 6.

The Midwest Horse Fair, which is operated by the Wisconsin State Horse Council, both based in Columbus, presents an annual event at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison that draws thousands of visitors from across the U.S.

According to a criminal complaint filed Wednesday, an investigation by Columbus police found that Reese had stolen money from the Midwest Horse Fair through various means, including personal purchases made on a Horse Fair debit card and the use of Horse Fair funds to pay for purchases made using two credit cards that Reese obtained in her name and in the name of the Horse Fair.

The complaint states she also wrote at least 41 checks to herself, totaling more than $167,000, from the fair’s bank account. Police said she wrote phony notations in the memo lines on the checks to make them appear legitimate, and changed the payee for the checks in the fair’s accounting software to the names of past and present Midwest Horse Fair vendors.

Police found that Reese had written at least one check each in the names of her son and her husband, then appeared to have forged their signatures onto the backs of the checks when she deposited them.

Reese was arrested in December by Columbus police.

Reese was also an independent contractor who directed the Empty Stocking Club, a charity operated by the Wisconsin State Journal that provides toys annually to thousands of area children. She also had a contract to organize spelling bees for the newspaper. The paper has terminated both contracts with Reese, who did not handle money in either role.

Reese faces up to six years of combined prison and extended supervision for each of the fraudulent writings charges, and one of the theft charges. For the remaining 19 theft charges, she faces up to 10 years.

According to the complaint:

In October, Columbus police were contacted by officers of the Midwest Horse Fair and Wisconsin Horse Council and told that in July, they found that Reese had been stealing from the Horse Fair. In February 2017, the fair’s event coordinator, Megan Hanuszczak, looked at a bank statement while opening mail and saw that Reese had written a check to herself for several thousand dollars. When she tried to find the statement later, after setting it on Reese’s desk, the portion of the statement containing the check image was gone.

Reviewing other financial records over the next few months, Hanuszczak found that Reese had been writing checks to herself, to her son, her husband and to Edgewood College, where Reese was attending school at the time. She graduated in April. In July, after contacting lawyers, Horse Fair and Horse Council officers met with Reese and fired her.

Hanusczak was named the fair’s executive director, replacing Reese.

At the time, Reese admitted what she did and said it began when her husband had lost his job. Reese said she would pay the money back and asked that the misappropriation be kept confidential.

As police investigated, they found that Reese had obtained a Citibank credit card in her name and on behalf of the Horse Fair, and payments were made to the card from the fair’s bank account. An American Express Card, also issued to Reese with the Midwest Horse Fair’s name attached to the account, was also discovered. Fair officials had not approved either card.

Police also found that Reese had made “excessive” purchases of airfare and lodging through Expedia, very little of which was related to the Horse Fair, but paid for it with Horse Fair money. She had also made jewelry purchases with fair money, police found, with one purchase from Helzberg Diamonds totaling nearly $4,100.

While most of the checks Reese wrote were issued to herself, other checks, for thousands of dollars, were also issued to AT&T, Bank of America, Discover Card and The Charles Collection, another jewelry store.

In all, police said, they found 267 transactions totaling $238,823 that Reese made using Horse Fair money that were not fair-related. Police executed a search warrant at her home in December and seized items believed to have been purchased with Horse Fair money.

Ed Treleven is the courts reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.