From the ninth hole of St. Paul’s Town & Country Club, visitors enjoy breathtaking views of the Mississippi River and downtown Minneapolis from one of the Twin Cities’ most picturesque urban golf courses.
Despite the theft of more than $1 million by Town & Country’s former comptroller, the club’s financial outlook also is rosy — thanks to an ingrained sense of family among the more than 500 members of Minnesota’s oldest golf club, said Christine Meuers, president of Town & Country’s board of directors.
“Our members are very loyal, very committed to this club,” said Meuers, a member since 2006. “A lot of people grew up here.”
Plans for major upgrades to Town & Country’s main clubhouse and dining facilities have been postponed, possibly until 2019. But work on a new cabana bar is expected to be completed in May, Meuers said.
The club has added 27 new member families since March 1, part of a spring recruiting drive that has cut the $4,000 to $6,000 initiation fees by two-thirds. Golfers returned to the club’s 96-acre course last week, and the swimming pool and clay tennis courts will be bustling with activity soon. A first-ever club fireworks show is planned for July 3.
Robert White was hired as the club’s general manager to right the ship at Town & Country after spending 25 years at the Aurora Country Club in Illinois. White said the club is eager to move on from the theft.
“They pretty much want to put that in the past,” he said. “They want to build the membership and look at the future.”
Julie A. Lee, 53, of Farmington, admitted last month to embezzling more than $1 million from Town & Country over eight years, from 2008 until 2016. She said she spent the money on travel, home improvements, various vehicles and even a piece of land in northern Minnesota. She pleaded guilty in federal court in St. Paul April 2 to wire fraud and filing a false tax return.
Lee was ordered to pay $1 million in restitution, although Meuers said she is unsure how much will actually be recovered. Club revenue of $7 million to $8 million a year has enabled it to weather the loss without needing to request additional money from members, Meuers said. “We are solvent,” she said.
As comptroller, Lee had the authority to sign and issue checks on behalf of the club; she also had signing authority on its bank accounts, including a line of credit with Alliance Bank. She went so far as to falsify bank statements, Meuers said.
The thefts were detected in December 2016, when club officials found inconsistencies related to the club’s bank loan and cash accounts. According her guilty plea and related court filings, Lee wrote checks to herself from the club’s bank accounts, as well as stealing about $250,000 in cash from the club. She also made payments on her personal credit cards from the club’s bank accounts totaling nearly $765,000.
Lee tried to cover shortfalls in accounts by taking advances on the club’s line of credit, leaving the club unable to make quarterly payroll tax payments to the IRS. She also filed false quarterly payroll tax returns with the IRS. At times, Lee also filed the club’s quarterly payroll tax returns late and made its quarterly payments late, resulting in the club paying more than $300,000 in interest and penalties to the IRS.
A sentencing date has not yet been set.
At a club where black and white portraits of past presidents share wall space with championship plaques and revered putters dating to 1888, the fact that Town & Country can move past a monthslong criminal investigation is a reflection of its members, White said.
“It’s a pretty tight-knit group, like a family,” he said.
Rick Wilhoit, a member for almost 40 years and something of a club historian, agrees. The relationships made by families over generations will continue, he said. And the food is pretty good, too.
“I live within walking distance” of Town & Country, he said. “And I’m not going anywhere.”
Since 2014, golf membership has ranged from 400 to the current 450, according to the club.
For many members who grew up in and around the area, Nora McGuire said, Town & Country has become a fixture of family life, hosting weddings, graduations and other celebrations. McGuire has been a member since 2006. But her mother started as a member in 1935, and McGuire recalls being on the swimming team, playing junior golf and getting her first job at Town & Country.
McGuire said she was more disappointed than angry at Lee’s crime.
“We thought we had hired a competent woman,” said McGuire, who was on the 17-member board of directors at the time of the theft. “How do we bounce back? We keep our chin up. We keep promoting the club. We are enticing new members. We are moving forward.”