Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

Star Center teacher gets probation

by Chris Schultz

January 10, 2013

The jury has decided.

But whether justice was served is an open question.

Johnalee Kawalec, mother of two and a teacher at Star Center School now on unpaid leave, is guilty of a felony, theft from a business setting.

Judge John Race sentenced her to two years of probation, with the sole condition that she pay restitution to Henry Kawalec, 84, who now lives in a nursing home.

The amount of that restitution will be set at a future hearing. The date of that hearing has not been set.

Henry Kawalec, uncle of Johnalee Kawalec’s former husband, gave Johnalee Kawalec, 44, power of attorney over his estate.

For 10 years, Johnalee Kawalec cared for Henry Kawalec. She and her two children lived in Henry Kawalec’s home.

Then the relationship between the two soured.

Henry Kawalec accused Johnalee Kawalec of embezzling money from his estate.

Court documents indicate Johnalee Kawalec wrote checks from a joint account she had with Henry Kawalec to her children, to Star Center PTO, Maurices, Market Day, Lake Geneva Food Services, Badger Community Education and to cash. Those were listed as possible fraudulent transactions.

After a four-day trial in early November, a jury found Johnalee Kawalec guilty of embezzling money from Henry Kawalec.

But during the sentencing hearing on Friday, Race wondered what she was doing in his court room in the first place.

He referred to letters the court received from the principal, parents and teachers at Star Center, praising Kawalec’s abilities as a teacher and her qualities as a member of the community. Former Star Center Principal Betsy Schroeder also sent the court a personal letter of support on Kawalec’s behalf.

About 18 supporters showed up in the courtroom at the Walworth County Judicial Center to lend their support to Johnalee Kawalec as she faced sentencing.

“It’s a tragedy that a dispute that could have been settled in mediation or by civil process wound up in criminal court,” Race said.

His sentence fell somewhere between the recommendations of the two attorneys.

Assistant District Attorney Diane M. Donohoo did not recommend prison, but she did ask for some jail time.

Mick Sellergren, attorney for Johnalee Kawalec, asked for one year of probation.

Ticking off the mitigating factors, Race said the crime was not vicious, it wasn’t violent and it wasn’t sneaky.

He said Johnalee Kawalec has her point of view in the testimony, but there is no indication that she lied.

“She doesn’t believe she’s done anything illegal and her supporters don’t either,” Race said.

On the other hand, Race said, good people can commit bad acts.

“That’s why we have juries; that’s why we have due process,” he said.

Race said he couldn’t think of any other conditions of probation other than she pay restitution.

“If the department (of corrections) feels some counseling is required, I would order it,” Race said. “But what can I tell her about her life that she doesn’t already know?”

At least twice during the sentencing hearing, it was mentioned that Henry Kawalec believed Johnalee Kawalec improperly removed $70,000 of his money and property.

Donohoo acknowledged the state was seeking $60,000 in restitution.

The state sought to convict Johnalee Kawalec of theft from a business setting greater than $10,000.

The jury, however, convicted Kawalec of a lesser felony, theft from a business setting between $2,500 and $5,000.

Why the jury made that decision is unknown. Juries are not required to explain their decisions, Race said.

And does that mean, Race added, that restitution should be limited to the $2,500 to $5,000 the jury found Johnalee Kawalec of stealing?

He said he’d leave it up to the restitution hearing.

Early in the sentencing hearing, Sellergren moved that the jury verdict be set aside.

Sellergren argued that the checking account from which Johnalee Kawalec was accused of taking money, was jointly owned by Johnalee and Henry Kawalec.

By definition, a joint checking account is owned 100 percent by those holding the joint account, Sellergren said.

“Can she be found guilty of stealing money from her own account?” Sellergren asked. “The joint owner is not answerable to other owners of the account,” he added.

Donohoo countered that Johnalee Kawalec did not become a joint holder of the account until after she was given power of attorney.

Receiving power of attorney before creation of the joint checking account created a fiduciary duty for Johnalee Kawalec, Donohoo said.

“If there is a power of attorney in place and money is removed from the joint account fraud is assumed,” she said.

Donohoo also said that state law requires the judge to enter the verdict of the jury. There is no room in Wisconsin law to set a jury decision aside, Donohoo said.

Race agreed with Donohoo and said he will enter the jury’s decision.

Race said all of the information he has received from peers and parents indicate that Kawalec is a good person.

In a tearful statement to the court, Kawalec mentioned her Herb Kohl Teacher of the Year Award, but added that awards “mean nothing compared to what I have in the joy of teaching.”

She said her students and their parents “are like family to me.”

Kawalec has a daughter who is preparing to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse with a degree in teaching. The past year has also been hard on her 11-year-old son, she said.

Kawalec has been a teacher for 19 years, said Sellergren. A felony conviction could well put an end to her goal of becoming an education administrator, and even end her career as a teacher.

Kawalec need not lose her teaching license because of this kind of felony conviction, Race replied. He said the state Department of Public Instruction holds the license. Only cases that involve immorality with a student requires removal of a teaching license, he said.

“She has no prior record and she is highly regarded for her professional abilities,” Race said. “I don’t know that this conviction will end her career.”

Contacted Monday morning, Jim Gottinger, superintendent of Lake Geneva Elementary and Badger High School districts, said Johnalee Kawalec is still on unpaid administrative leave. Her employment status is still in question, he said.