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Published January 11 2010

Former Grygla, Minn., postmaster enters Alford plea in theft case

Ardeene Hagen, the former postmaster in Grygla, Minn., entered an Alford plea last week in court to a charge of stealing money from the post office she worked in for 20 years.

By: Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald

Ardeene Hagen, the former postmaster in Grygla, Minn., entered an Alford plea last week in court to a charge of stealing money from the post office she worked in for 20 years.

Hagen is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 2 in Marshall County district court in Warren, Minn.

She entered an Alford plea, which technically is a guilty plea but one in which she does not admit guilt, but that the prosecutors have enough evidence to convict her.

Hagen originally was charged with four counts of theft of public property, accused by federal postal investigators of taking a total of about $1,800 from November 2007 to April 2009.

Assistant County Attorney Jeremy Klinger told the Herald last summer, “Basically, she took money from the cash drawer and manipulated postal records to cover it up.”

Hagen initially pleaded not guilty to the four counts.

She began working in the office 20 years ago and was named postmaster in 1997. She resigned May 31.

In a letter to the Herald mailed last week, Hagen said she wasn’t guilty of what she was accused of, and blamed poor paperwork on her part, and her inability to afford fighting it in court.

An audit last March by postal officials found a shortfall of $212 in her office, Hagen said in the letter. Part of that deficit was because she hadn’t collected the right amount from a customer for a money order. “My mistake,” she wrote.

In April, the Office of the Inspector General accused her of taking funds from the postal accounts of the local Farmers Union, Grace Lutheran Church and other customers, as well as stealing toilet paper from the post office and taking it to her home, Hagen said.

“None of these accusations are true,” she wrote.

“A few years ago I was audited and had shortage of $260,” she said. “I paid the postal service that amount and later found where the mistake was made but was never reimbursed. Two years ago an audit was done and a shortage of $700 was found. I received a ‘letter of demand’ for the amount, but was never given the chance to dispute it.”

She wrote that audits finding shortages at post offices are not uncommon and that she talked to another postmaster who had to pay $200 when an audit found a shortfall in her post office.

She never stole the amounts of money she is accused of stealing, Hagen said.

“I was honest enough to tell (the federal inspector) that I grabbed $5 for lunch a couple times,” she said of taking money from the office’s coffers. “This may have broken the postal rules, but it was not stealing; they always got their money back.”

Postal officials she asked for advice told her to not to fight the postal service because she would never win, but rather to resign to preserve savings and retirement funds, she wrote.

When she was charged with crimes, she first hired an attorney to fight them in court. “The cost financially and emotionally was too much to continue the fight,” she wrote, explaining why she entered the Alford plea last week.

She has leaned on support from many relatives and friends in the community, Hagen says.

“I have worked for the postal service for 20 years and it never entered my mind to embezzle, swindle or steal money from the post office,” she wrote. “On Feb. 2 I will be sentenced for a crime I did not commit. Sometimes I think justice is for those who can afford it.”

The felony swindle charge she pleaded to carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237; (800) 477-6572, ext. 237; or send e-mail to slee@gfherald.com

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