Wisconsin man convicted of stealing $51,000 from veterans
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
MILWAUKEE — A Milwaukee County jury Friday convicted Kevin Kavanaugh of stealing more than $51,000 from money donated to help veterans and their families.
Prosecutors said the 62-year-old Kavanaugh had skimmed the money from bank deposits and phony withdrawals from accounts for the local chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, a veterans service organization.
Kavanaugh, of Cudahy, was treasurer of the group.
He didn't testify at the trial and said nothing following the verdict. Sentencing on the felony conviction was sent for Dec. 7. Kavanaugh, who had no prior criminal record, faces up to 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine.
Kavanaugh's attorney Christopher Hartley said circumstantial evidence in the form of many checks Kavanaugh cashed from Purple Heart funds were difficult to overcome with jurors. No direct evidence was presented showing that Kavanaugh spent the missing money or salted it away for himself, Hartley said.
He argued to jurors that Kavanaugh regularly gave money — a few hundred dollars at a time — to needy veterans.
The biggest source of money Kavanaugh was accused of tapping was donations made for Operation Freedom, an annual picnic and veterans event at the zoo that Gov. Scott Walker hosted while he was Milwaukee County executive. In 2006, Walker's county office arranged to have the Operation Freedom donations and expenses run through the Purple Heart chapter after being advised by county lawyers to have a separate nonprofit handle the books rather than continue to have Walker aides do so.
Kavanaugh, who also worked as a counselor at the Zablocki Veterans Administration Medical Center, had been named by Walker to the county Veterans Service Commission.
Prosecutors said Kavanaugh went to elaborate lengths to conceal his transactions and had witnesses testify they never received money purportedly donated to them, as listed in his Purple Heart records.
"Why did he falsify the check stubs" to say money was going to children of veterans killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, asked Assistant District Attorney Hanna Kolberg in her closing argument to jurors. "Why did he refuse to open his books when asked" by a Purple Heart auditor, Walker's chief of staff at the county and others, she said. "Why did he purposely commingle" the Purple Heart money with his money?
"Because the defendant is a thief," Kolberg told jurors.
Hartley said Kavanaugh was just a terrible bookkeeper.
"Where is the proof?" he asked. Kavanaugh "is not on trial for being a very bad bookkeeper."
Tom Nardelli, Walker's chief of staff at the county, testified against Kavanaugh, saying he had made repeated attempts to meet with Kavanaugh after being told there was some $11,000 missing from 2006 Operation Freedom funds. Those meetings always fell through, Nardelli said.
Nardelli said he went to Walker with concerns about the missing money in 2009, and Walker told him to report it to the district attorney's office. That led to a secret John Doe investigation, later broadened to other issues.
It was the second conviction from cases that grew from that probe this week. Former Walker aide Kelly Rindfleisch pleaded guilty Thursday to felony misconduct in office for doing campaign work while at her taxpayer-paid county job as Walker's deputy chief of staff.