Former festival promoter David Eckberg apologized in court Friday for issuing worthless checks that led to the demise of Lumberjack Days, the regional celebration that attracted tens of thousands of people to downtown Stillwater every July.
"It's been a terrible experience; I'm sorry it happened," Eckberg said before his felony sentencing in Washington County District Court. "It was a life-changing impact for many people and I apologize."
Lumberjack Days was one of the premier festivals in the metro area and was known for a huge parade, lumberjack demonstrations, free concerts by yesteryear headliner bands such as Chicago, the Grass Roots and America, and a fireworks show over the St. Croix River. A few months after the 2011 festival ended, Stillwater police and the Washington County Sheriff's Office began investigating Eckberg's finances. County Attorney Pete Orput filed criminal charges in late 2012.
Judge Susan Miles sentenced Eckberg to a year of probation, a $1,000 fine, and 240 hours of community service that he must complete within six months. He also was ordered to pay restitution to three businesses and a booster club that had received worthless checks. Defense attorney Eric Thole said three of four victims had been paid in recent days and a check was mailed to a fourth.
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. Eckberg, owner of St. Croix Events, had been scheduled for a trial on 10 felony counts related to financial fraud but pleaded guilty in February to an "aggregate" count that included all the money owed to those victims.
Checks to pay off the debts were issued this week from Thole's attorney trust fund, but he said Eckberg had supplied the money. He declined to specify how Eckberg, who has declared bankruptcy, paid the bills except to say that Eckberg had equity in his house in Baytown Township and his wife is employed.
"This could have been done two years ago. It's ridiculous," said Brian Mock, who owns Icabod, a music equipment company. "It cost the taxpayers more than $1,000 in damages to do all the investigations. That $1,000 fine is a little light compared to what it cost everybody else to deal with all this. We're the four that luckily got paid but I know there's a lot more listed in his bankruptcy paperwork that he owes money to."
Beau McGraw, who became president of the Stillwater hockey boosters two years ago, said Eckberg personally handed him a check this week for the owed amount. "While it's terrible it occurred, it made our booster club stronger," he told the judge in court.
The prosecutor, Rick Hodsdon, argued that the County Attorney's office had received information that Eckberg had tried in recent months to revive Lumberjack Days and possibly advise organizers of Stillwater Log Jam, the new summer festival.
Hodsdon asked Miles to stipulate that Eckberg stay away from organizing or advising any community events during his probation to make sure he didn't advise anybody not to pay their bills. The judge declined, stating that "notoriety" over Eckberg's financial miscues with Lumberjack Days was well known.
"No member from the group The Locals has ever been contacted by, or attempted to, contact Dave Eckberg for any reason in the past or present," Erin McQuay, one of five organizers of Stillwater Log Jam, said Friday. "Mr. Eckberg's past experience with the event has nothing to do with our group or our community's event."
Eckberg, 62, said before his sentencing that Lumberjack Days had brought millions of dollars to Stillwater over 18 years. Surrounded by family members, he declined to talk after he left the courtroom.
"He's happy the crux of this case is pretty much done with him paying off everybody," Thole said.
Meg Brownson, a downtown Stillwater business owner, said she and other merchants were happy to finally see an end to the bitter Lumberjack Days saga.
"We're glad that it's all behind us," said Brownson, of Alfresco Casual Living. "We're looking forward to a new event that's smaller and more local. We're excited for the future of downtown."