Living beyond his means and wanting to do more than his income allowed allegedly led a former Pequot Lakes teacher of the year to steal $34,000 from a teachers’ union fund, according to court documents filed Thursday.
Larry Arden Lightner, 46, rural Backus, was charged by summons in Crow Wing County District Court with six counts of felony theft by check. He is scheduled to make his first court appearance at 9 a.m. on Oct. 3 at the Crow Wing County Judicial Center.
A message left at Lightner’s home phone number Thursday afternoon was not returned.
Lightner served as co-treasurer of Education Minnesota Pequot Lakes when the thefts took place. In the statement of probable cause included with the summons filed Thursday, Lightner told Pequot Lakes Police Officer John Ryan that since 2005 he had been writing checks to himself out of the union’s checking account and cashing them.
The checks required two signatures, and Lightner told Ryan he would get his fellow co-treasurer to sign blank checks by telling her he needed them to pay bills and didn’t want to track her down when the bills came in.
Lightner made the checks payable to himself and cashed them or deposited them into his own bank account. In the computer accounting program used to track union funds, Lightner left the “pay to” portion blank for the checks he had written to himself.
Lightner told Ryan he believed he had taken at least $17,000 over the years. According to bank records, checks valued at $34,000 were written to and cashed by Lightner while he was co-treasurer. From Aug. 12, 2008-July 25, 2011, Lightner stole more than $1,000 every six months, court records showed.
“The defendant stated he took the money because he was living beyond his means and wanted to do more than his income would allow,” the statement of probable cause said.
Lightner reported the theft to Susan Sergent, then president of Education Minnesota Pequot Lakes, who in turn called police on July 25. Sergent, reached by phone Thursday afternoon, declined to comment.
Kim Johnson, president of Education Minnesota Pequot Lakes, said union members were sad and disappointed to hear of the theft because many of them had known Lightner for a long time.
“It was a really big surprise,” Johnson said.
When after Lightner confessed to Sergent and Pequot Lakes Police, he resigned his position as co-treasurer of the union, Johnson said. He is still a member of the organization.
Johnson said Education Minnesota Pequot Lakes has conducted a thorough review of its local financial systems with the help of its bank and Education Minnesota.
“We’ve determined there aren’t any issues with the system but we’ve implement additional layers of checks and balances,” Johnson said. “It’s really unfortunate and we’re going to try to do even more to keep it from happening again.”
Pequot Lakes Superintendent Rick Linnell said news of the criminal charges against Lightner was shocking. He said in the five years he has been superintendent of Pequot Lakes schools Lightner has been a model teacher and done a good job.
“It’s a shame it happens to people, these kinds of things,” Linnell said in a phone interview Thursday night. “It’s one of those things that obviously there are underlying issues. On behalf of the district we hope the best for him, that things will work out for him and his family.”
Lightner is a math teacher at Pequot Lakes High School. A 2007 Pequot Lakes Echo story about Lightner being named teacher of the year said he also taught college algebra and college trigonometry through Lake Superior College, as well as AP calculus and FST (functions, statistics and trigonometry) to juniors and seniors. Before working for the Pequot Lakes School District Lightner taught in Pillager.
Linnell said the Pequot Lakes School Board has taken no action regarding Lightner. He said the district would consult with its attorneys on what direction to go.
A Brainerd High School graduate, Lightner attended Brainerd Community College, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and St. Cloud State University, where he received his degree in math.
State court records show Lightner was convicted of gross misdemeanor DWI in 1988 and 1989 in Stearns County. On July 20 of this year in Crow Wing County he was arrested and charged for gross misdemeanor third-degree DWI; gross misdemeanor violating driver’s license restrictions regarding alcohol and controlled substances; and misdemeanor DWI. That case is still pending in Crow Wing County District Court.
MATT ERICKSON may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5857.