Husband sentenced in St. Croix County church embezzlement case
HUDSON — A Roberts man implicated in a church embezzlement scheme with his wife was convicted Monday of three criminal charges but avoided prison.
Unlike his wife — a former St. Paul school administrator who was sentenced last year to two years in prison — Michael LaVenture will avoid significant time behind bars after pleading no contest to three misdemeanor theft counts.
"I'm sorry for what happened between my wife and the church," a choked-up LaVenture said during his June 11 sentencing hearing.
St. Croix County Circuit Court Judge Scott Needham sentenced LaVenture to three years on probation and restitution. The 47-year-old must also spend 30 days annually in a jail work-release program for the duration of his probation.
Central to LaVenture's sentence, however, was restitution to New Centerville Methodist Church, the town of Rush River parish that was fleeced for about $190,000 while Kara Amundson-LaVenture served as its treasurer.
Attorneys in the case agreed that repayment of the stolen funds must be the priority and that a plea agreement allowing LaVenture to begin repaying the money would represent the most direct way to accomplish that goal.
St. Croix County Assistant District Attorney Erica Ellenwood said sending LaVenture to prison "would be counterproductive to their goal."
"The sooner that we can get the church money, I think that's justice," she said.
The path to paying back the money won't be easy, LaVenture's attorney Jeremiah Harrelson said. The criminal convictions permanently bar him from working in the financial sector, where LaVenture had earned a living until Monday, when he tendered his resignation.
"There is a huge collateral consequence," Harrelson said.
He tried calling Amundson-LaVenture to testify at sentencing to establish that she was the primary player in the scheme. Needham rejected the proposal, siding with Amundson-LaVenture's attorney Lars Loberg, who said she was planning to invoke her right to remain silent amid concerns that answering questions could expose her to more legal consequences.
LaVenture and his wife weren't feeding addictions and weren't strapped for cash, Needham said. He said there appeared to be only one motive at play in the case.
"It was simple greed," he said, adding that their combined annual income exceeded $300,000.
No one from the congregation spoke at LaVenture's hearing Monday, unlike his wife's sentencing hearing, where a member described the financial toll.
Still, Needham had words for congregation members in attendance, telling them the New Centerville church arrangement reminded him of the rural church of his youth.
"As we know, bad things happen to good people and good organizations," he said.
Needham noted how the issue became a criminal matter only after the church's insurance carrier required a police report to establish a claim.
The judge praised church leaders for seeking an in-house solution to the embezzlement situation once Amundson-LaVenture admitted to it, calling the offer "a true expression of grace." The sentence he issued could send LaVenture to jail for 27 months if he doesn't abide terms of his probation, which also require him to keep a full-time job, have no contact with the church and to receive moral reconation therapy.