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Lake Park mayor charged with stealing thousands from sister with Down's syndrome

LAKE PARK, Minn. – The mayor of this small Minnesota community said Tuesday he’ll continue being mayor while facing felony charges of stealing thousands of dollars from his sister, a Down’s syndrome patient in an assisted-living facility nearby.

Aaron Wittnebel, 32, was charged Aug. 6 in Becker County District Court with one count of financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult and failure to provide care, a felony.

Court documents filed with the case state Wittnebel was appointed his sister’s guardian and conservator of his sister’s estate in January 2011, and was in charge of her finances.

Workers at Divine House in Detroit Lakes notified Becker County Human Services in August 2012 that Wittnebel was more than $6,000 behind in payment for his sister’s care.

At a hearing on a petition to replace Wittnebel as his sister’s conservator, Wittnebel admitted he had not made regular payments to Divine House, and that he had combined his finances with those of his sister. At the time, he said, he had about $100 left in the account.

A court order was entered requiring Wittnebel to account for the management of his sister’s funds.

In going over the receipts Wittnebel provided, a Becker County sheriff’s investigator determined about $5,409 was unaccounted for, and that some of the receipts Wittnebel provided were questionable.

Among them were receipts for a Netbook computer and wireless router, although Divine House does not have wireless access and Wittnebel’s sister does not have a computer. There were also several large grocery bills, although Divine House provides all of Wittnebel’s meals.

Wittnebel said Tuesday he and his defense attorney expect a speedy dismissal of the charges, which will be sought at his first court appearance on Aug. 19.

His attorney, Joe Irby, said Wittnebel categorically denies any wrongdoing. Irby expects the facts to come out at a later date and show that Wittnebel did nothing wrong.

“I think the charges are substantially exaggerated in light of he’s a public figure,” said Irby. Irby did not elaborate.

Wittnebel has been an outspoken proponent of gay marriage and is Minnesota’s only openly gay mayor.

Wittnebel said he was “blindsided” by the charges because the events were dealt with a year ago. He continues to see his sister on a weekly basis, he said, and it is unclear to him whether she understood the nature of the allegations against him.

Wittnebel said he has met with Lake Park’s vice mayor and city attorney, and both determined Wittnebel could continue being mayor as the case progresses.

Emily Welker, INFORUM

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