Ex-UW-Oshkosh leaders plead guilty in foundation scandal

Posted on Jan 16, 2020 :: Insight on Business, Web Exclusive
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Two former University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh administrators will pay nearly $75,500 each for felony misconduct, related to their involvement with the university’s private foundation.

As part of a plea deal, former Chancellor Richard Wells and former Vice Chancellor Tom Sonnleitner pleaded guilty in Winnebago County Circuit Court to one count each of misconduct in office in excess of their authority. Each man was ordered to pay a $5,000 fine, plus $70,455 in restitution to the UW System. Half of that amount is due by the end of 2020, with the other half due by the end of 2021.

The plea deals end nearly four years of fallout from a scandal surrounding the UW-Oshkosh Foundation and its role in funding five high-profile building projects that left the foundation bankrupt and put some scholarships for students at risk.

According to the state, Wells and Sonnleitner illegally directed $11 million from UW-Oshkosh to the foundation to help pay for building projects. The duo also signed “comfort letters” to banks promising, on the university’s behalf, to pay tens of millions of dollars if the foundation couldn’t make its debt payments.

Andrew Leavitt, the current chancellor of UW-Oshkosh, said the plea deals mark “the end of a long, difficult chapter for the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Everyone is moving forward. The foundations of this three-campus university join us in engaging donors and partners with renewed purpose and hope.”

After assuming the chancellorship, Leavitt noticed some unusual contacts between the university and foundation and reported it to the UW System. On Wednesday, Leavitt thanked “the many leaders, volunteers and supporters in this region, throughout the UW System and beyond who have embodied our mission and helped” the university’s students, faculty and staff members set the stage for a stronger future.