The longtime general manager of a Minnesota cooperative grain elevator is still missing, one month after suspicions arose that he used money from the co-op to finance exotic big-game hunting safaris and expensive taxidermy.
The Ashby Farmers Cooperative Elevator Co. said last week that it has identified more than $4.9 million in suspicious spending by Jerry Hennessey, who served as its general manager for nearly 30 years. That’s more than double the $2 million estimate the co-op had announced two weeks ago.
Hennessey disappeared in early September as the co-op board began asking questions about a substantial bank loan that came due without assets to cover it. The co-op closed its doors Sept. 10, just as harvest season was getting underway.
Meanwhile, the co-op reopened last Wednesday and will continue to operate under new management. The board announced that it has reached a lease agreement with the Wheaton-Dumont Co-op, which operates 16 facilities in Minnesota and the Dakotas.
“We think Ashby will be a great addition to our family of elevators,” said Philip Deal, the company’s general manager. “We understand the importance of the elevator to the producers and the local community, and look forward to working with them for a long time to come.”
Newly discovered checks written on the co-op’s account allegedly by Hennessey include additional safari trips and payments of personal credit-card debt, as well as checks that appear to be written for land purchases by Hennessey and construction projects on his home, said Erik Ahlgren, a Fergus Falls lawyer who is helping the board trace the missing money.
“I don’t necessarily think that we’ve found them all,” Ahlgren said. “But I think we’ve done a pretty good first run through everything.” It’s unlikely that the co-op and its roughly 300 member-owners will be made financially whole, he added.
“Almost certainly we will not recover all the money,” Ahlgren said. “Almost certainly both the bank and the members are going to take a financial loss.”
People in Ashby, a town of 440 residents about 165 miles northwest of the Twin Cities, had wondered whether Hennessey was living beyond his means, Ahlgren said.
Hennessey went on hunting trips to such places as Alaska, New Zealand and Australia. He had an extensive collection of professionally mounted trophies at his home and even built a special taxidermy room to hold them.
Ahlgren said the unauthorized checks date back as far as 2003. About $3 million of the missing money was spent in the last six years, he said.
Co-ops until recently were required to submit regular financial reports to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, but the Legislature in 2012 removed the requirement, said Nick Milanowski, supervisor of the department’s Fruit, Vegetable and Grain Program.
“We do have the ability to request financial information,” he said. “But it’s not annually. There’s no set schedule.”
There’s still no word on Hennessey’s whereabouts, said Grant County Sheriff Troy Langlie, adding that his department is working with analysts from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to collect the financial records needed before criminal charges against Hennessey could be considered.