Ex-University Leaders Face Federal Charges in Foundation Scandal

Two former administrators at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh face felony charges after allegedly funneling millions in taxpayer money to building projects for a now-bankrupt private university foundation.

U. of Wisconsin at Oshkosh

Richard Wells, former chancellor

Richard Wells, who was chancellor, and Tom Sonnleitner, who was vice chancellor, were each charged on Thursday with five counts of misconduct in office and could face a maximum of three and a half years in prison on each charge, the Journal Sentinel reports.

The charges follow a civil lawsuit filed last year by the University of Wisconsin system and a request from the Board of Regents asking that the Wisconsin Department of Justice pursue charges. Last year’s lawsuit states that the two former administrators funded five foundation building projects with $11 million in taxpayer money.

The former administrators’ alleged actions could put the Wisconsin system on the hook for money borrowed for the projects, and the scandal has affected recruitment efforts, a university spokeswoman said.

Michael M. Grebe, chair of the regents audit committee, said in a statement that the board supports the charges.

“The Board took this unprecedented action because Dr. Wells and Mr. Sonnleitner failed to follow rules and statutes that govern university operations, and we are working diligently to rebuild confidence in our institutions and to improve the transparency of foundation transactions,” Grebe said in a statement after the charges were announced.

The accused administrators argue that the letters they wrote promising the university would back their loans aren’t legally binding.

“Former UW Oshkosh chancellor Richard Wells and I are saddened that the Attorney General’s office has chosen to issue criminal charges against him, based upon memoranda of understanding, loans and undertakings through the UW Oshkosh Foundation, which were intended to benefit the university,” Raymond Dall’Osto, Wells’s lawyer, said in a statement.

Wells is expected in court in early June, his lawyer told the Journal Sentinel.