Ex Kent commissioner on the hook for gas, gravestones

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WZZM) - Nearly four month after he was sentenced to jail for embezzling from the Diocese of Grand Rapids, former Kent County Commissioner Michael Wawee Jr. was back in court Thursday for a hearing to determine how much he has to pay back.

The actual amount involved remains to be determined, but Wawee can shave three months from his one-year jail term if he helps the Diocese figure out the bookkeeping quagmire.

Several witnesses testified during today's restitution hearing before Kent County Circuit Court Judge Donald A. Johnston. Prosecutors have said losses could approach $200,000; defense attorney Michael Kelley says that amount is way too much.

After the theft allegations came to light, more than a year ago, police set up a video surveillance camera to monitor activity at the gas pumps at Holy Cross Cemetery. It shows three people helping themselves to gasoline.

Wawee admitted to taking gasoline, but said he had permission, Grand Rapids Police Detective Mason Klein testified today.

"I asked him if he took gasoline from the cemetery; he said that he did, but that he had permission,'' Klein said. "He approximated about 16 years.''

Klein pegged the value of the pilfered gasoline at $31,000.

Kelly pointed out that Wawee wasn't the only one helping himself to diocese gasoline. A cemetery co-worker was filling a five-gallon container and trading the gas for pizzas, Kelly told the court.

"I think it matters a lot when Mr. Wawee is being asked to pay the whole tab,'' Kelly said.

In addition to the gasoline, Wawee is on the hook for overcharging widows and widowers for engravings on headstones.

Montcalm County Assistant Prosecutor Christopher Hekman is handling the case for Kent County due to Wawee's former position as an elected official. The restitution hearing will continue in Johnston's court at a later date.

Wawee, 44, in September pleaded no contest to embezzlement of between $1,000 and $20,000 from a non-profit and attempted false pretenses between $1,000 and $20,000. In addition to jail, Wawee was placed on probation for three years.

He resigned in Feb. 2014 from his job as 6th District commissioner.

Wawee is being held in the Ottawa County Jail due because of his former job as a Kent County commissioner.


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