Just days before Forest Lake firefighter John Berken allegedly ignited a massive fire in Anoka County, a federal court filing accused him of perjury and requested the U.S. attorney investigate a case in which Berken allegedly ran up $4 million in improper credit-card charges.

Berken, 40, was arrested on suspicion of starting and then returning to fight the April 6 fire that burned 2.3 square miles of the Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area in Columbus. But a report to U.S. Magistrate David Doty dated April 1 said a receiver representing American Express would hold nearly $167,000 in cash of Berken's assets.

The court filing details the financial difficulties of a man who was once named the Forest Lake businessman of the year, served as a director of the city's chamber of commerce and received a Lifesaver Award from the city in 2006.

It says Berken -- accused of making the improper credit-card charges as owner of the now-defunct Forest Lake Ford -- spent more than $1.2 million over a 12-day span, between Dec. 31, 2007, and Jan. 11, 2008. Nearly $380,000 went to Berken's former girlfriend, Stephanie Whitman, and her business, the Little Cafe Inc.

Berken, charged with felony wildfire arson last week, posted $50,000 bail. Calls to Berken's attorney have gone unanswered. The U.S. attorney's office in Minneapolis would not confirm or deny an investigation.

Although he claimed to have no income other than a quarterly stipend as a volunteer firefighter, Berken testified Oct. 10 that he lost $180,000 gambling between Dec. 3, 2007, and Jan. 11, 2008 -- a period of slightly more than five weeks.

Whitman wired $95,000 to him while he was in Las Vegas during Super Bowl weekend, on Jan. 31, 2008 -- money he claims he lost gambling, according to federal court documents. But that same month, $95,000 was sent to Whitman -- a $50,000 cashier's check from Berken on Jan. 3 and a check for $45,000 sent Jan. 31.

Writing large checks was hardly new to Berken, by then. According to testimony he gave in October, he wrote himself a check for $1.2 million on Nov. 29, 2007. Why?

"Because I wanted to," he said under oath, to an attorney representing the receiver for American Express.

He was also asked about a cashier's check for $120,000. "I don't recall what I did with it," he testified.

James Bartholomew, the receiver who filed the report in federal court, declined to comment.

Lofty living expenses

Berken's living arrangements also proved costly. He testified he had two houses and spent $45,000 between Dec. 3, 2007, and Jan. 11, 2008, on living expenses -- although he had no receipts.

Berken claimed in an Oct. 10, 2008, deposition that he and his wife, Corinn Berken, separated in late 2006, but he'd yet to hire a divorce lawyer. Whitman is called Berken's former girlfriend in court documents, but he listed her address as his own last week with the Anoka County sheriff after his arrest.

"Once his business and personal life fell apart, he just quit," Forest Lake Fire Chief Gary Sigfrinius said last week. Sigfrinius said that for much of the past two years, Berken failed to attend training sessions and often did not respond to fire alarms.

Berken's problems as president of Forest Lake Ford are well-documented. In October, American Express won a $3.8 million consent judgment against Berken, who allegedly ran up the improper charges on the dealership's credit card. The dealership closed after filing for bankruptcy.

But Sigfrinius said he couldn't imagine money as a motive for Berken allegedly starting last week's fire. "Our firefighters were paid only $16.25 [per hour] to go to that call," Sigfrinius said. "He couldn't have done it for the money."

Limited income at Little Cafe

But money was an issue for Berken and those surrounding him. Whitman testified on Oct. 3, 2008, that her income for 2007 was $10,200 and that she was earning $6.15 an hour at the Little Cafe.

Yet, Whitman said she was able to stay current on mortgage payments for the $400,000 home she purchased in December 2007 with an $85,000 down payment, according to court documents.

When Berken applied as a Forest Lake firefighter in 2004, a background check unveiled his convictions in the early 1990s on theft charges in Ramsey, Dakota and Hennepin counties. He was convicted in Washington County in 1993 of felony check forgery.

And in 1991, Berken was sentenced to a year in prison for threatening to bomb Flying Cloud Airport in Eden Prairie. Berken was terminated by the fire department on Feb. 10, 2005, after the background check -- but reinstated 12 days later. The job application asked only whether he had been convicted of a felony the previous five years.

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419