The fallen promoter of Lumberjack Days, Stillwater's longtime regional festival, pleaded guilty Friday in a surprise court appearance and vowed he would make good on worthless checks.
David Eckberg, owner of St. Croix Events, had been scheduled for a March trial on 10 felony counts related to financial fraud. In the agreement reached Friday, the first nine counts were dismissed but he pleaded guilty to the 10th.
That charge, said prosecutor Rick Hodsdon of the Washington County attorney's office, was an "aggregate" count that included all the money owed to a music production company, a high school hockey club and two beer distributors.
"He pleaded guilty to every worthless check he issued," Hodsdon said afterward.
Lumberjack Days, held every July in downtown Stillwater, was one of the premier festivals in the metro area and was known for a huge parade, lumberjack demonstrations, major free concerts by yesteryear headliner bands such as Chicago, the Grass Roots and America, and a fireworks show over the St. Croix River.
Eckberg, 62, of Baytown Township, appeared in court Friday with his attorney, Eric Thole. His guilty plea means he could serve 20 years on probation, although that matter and whether he's also sent to jail will be decided at his April 17 sentencing.
Thole told District Judge Susan Miles that he will seek a reduction in the felony charge to a gross misdemeanor.
Eckberg declined to comment after the hearing, but Thole said his client didn't want to incur more legal fees, but instead, pay off his bills.
"I think this is a fair resolution," Thole said. "It's a winnable case but we wanted to focus on getting everybody paid."
Eckberg filed for bankruptcy in 2012. He and his wife, Stacy A. Einck, listed about 150 creditors with claims exceeding $1.4 million, according to documents filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Minneapolis.
Thole, when asked where Eckberg would find the money to pay, said, "we're working on that." He said Eckberg intended to pay the four creditors who were issued worthless checks before his sentencing date.
Eckberg also owes money to the city of Stillwater in a contract for fireworks, but Hodsdon said that claim wasn't included in the criminal charges because no check was issued.
Hodsdon said he was pleased to hear of Eckberg's intentions to pay his victims, but also noted that even now, Eckberg hasn't paid off the worthless checks since writing them in 2011, the last year Lumberjack Days was held.
He transferred money
Eckberg asked the recipients to hold the checks until money was available to honor them. In the meantime, records showed, he deposited and then transferred more than $40,000 from the Lumberjack Festival and St. Croix Events accounts into personal bank accounts belonging to him and his wife. The sum was sufficient to cover the outstanding debt, but Eckberg continued to tell the victims he couldn't pay them, said County Attorney Pete Orput.
Eckberg admitted to issuing worthless checks in the amounts of $20,000 to Icabod Productions, $10,000 to Stillwater Blue Line Boosters, $5,800 to Needham Distributing, and $2,200 to Hohensteins Inc., a beer distributor.
"We believed the state had an excellent case and we were prepared to try it," Hodsdon said.
Reeling from the Lumberjack Days allegations, the Stillwater City Council declared a moratorium on summer festivals in 2011 and commissioned a survey of residents asking them what they wanted in a new community festival. Last fall, the council approved a new but smaller festival that will be called Stillwater Log Jam. That festival, scheduled for July, will be organized by local business owners who have no connection to Eckberg.
"This unexpected plea is very satisfying," Orput said Friday. "This brings the victims that much closer to finally being made financially whole after this entire ordeal. Hopefully, their justice will be forthcoming at the sentencing."