County officials aided in Cronk investigation

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Former Montezuma County Undersheriff Robin Cronk allegedly helped himself to taxpayers’ money for more than two years to buy guns, computers and other items for his own use, according to documents unsealed by the 22nd Judicial District Court last month.

Cronk was illegally feeding at the public trough both before – and after – an investigation of his suspected spending spree was launched by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation in April, according to the documents.

District Attorney Will Furse and the Montezuma County commissioners jointly asked the CBI to look into Cronk’s alleged personal enrichment on April 10 of this year – just two days after holding a closed-door meeting they said at the time was not an executive session, just an “informal” chat with the DA.

On Sept. 29, Commissioner Larry Don Suckla finally acknowledged that the subject of the meeting was Cronk’s possible misuse of county funds, ending a mystery that had been the subject of widespread speculation.

“We basically just gave our blessing to the district attorney to move forward with it,” Suckla said, adding that although he didn’t remember the chain of events precisely, former county Administrator Ashton Harrison had probably brought the possible misuse of county funds to their attention.

“I believe he might have been the one,” Suckla said.

Cronk has been indicted by a Montezuma County grand jury on 17 counts of felony embezzlement and one misdemeanor count of official misconduct.

Some of the items he allegedly bought illegally were purchased through a checking account identified as the Montezuma County Sheriff ’s Office Contractual Service Fund, and county officials appears to have played a role in bringing Cronk’s activities to the attention of law enforcement.

According to the court documents, Commissioner Keenan Ertel told CBI Agent Randy Watts during an interview April 17 that Harrison had earlier expressed concerns to the commissioners that the Contractual Service Fund did not have sufficient oversight.

“During the conversation, [I] was told the BoCC [board of county commissioners] had been recently approached by. . . Harrison during a regularly scheduled commissioners’ meeting,” Watts noted, according to court documents. “During the meeting Harrison voiced his concerns regarding the oversight of an MCSO checking account. The BoCC was told the issue was brought to the attention of MCSO Sheriff Dennis Spruell, who subsequently took care of the issue.”

However, the defendant’s spending reportedly continued, with one suspicious purchase from an MCSO checking account occurring as recently as June of this year, shortly before Cronk resigned.

The April 8 meeting between Furse and the commissioners was not announced as an executive session, which would be seem to be required under the Colorado open-meetings statute. Commissioner Ertel explicitly denied it was an executive session, but still required the audience, Harrison, and even County Clerk Carol Tullis to leave, saying the board wanted to talk to Furse “informally.”

State law requires any meeting of local public bodies during which “public business” is discussed to be open to the public, except for discussions of certain special topics that can be held as executive sessions.

To conduct executive sessions, boards must take a vote and announce the general topic as well as the part of the law under which it qualifies as an executive session.

In a case such as the Cronk allegations, an executive session could have been called under a provision for discussions of “investigations.” Such meetings are also supposed to be electronically recorded, according to the law, although this one was not.

Harrison, who also was excluded from the meeting, abruptly resigned as administrator the same day, but continued to receive emails related to the bank account on his office computer. Those emails were forwarded later to Furse by Commission Chairman Steve Chappell, who discovered them in the computer’s inbox.

However, Chappell downplayed Harrison’s role in bringing to light the alleged misuse of public funds.

“Ashton brought that to the sheriff ’s attention, but it was a concern of the staff in the administration office that there was no oversight on that particular fund,” he told the Free Press Sept. 29. “Ashton advised the sheriff to close that account and I realize that he has closed it.

“But I don’t know if Ashton had anything to do with Robin Cronk’s investigation. I think Ashton was just bringing it to the sheriff ’s attention that it was not really good to have an account that may cause scrutiny down the line.

“The only thing I know concerning that account is that Sherry [Dyess], our treasurer, was aware of it and she had accounting of it and she turned that over to the administration and we turned it over to the district attorney. And I’m sure that’s where he went with it was to this investigation,” Chappell said. “If I remember that meeting right, Will Furse informed us that there was possibly something going on with Robin Cronk – he was just advising us that there was going to be an investigation.”

Chappell said Harrison had probably spoken to Cronk about the account. “Ashton didn’t like that account and he was certainly in conversation, probably with Cronk.” Chappell said he doubted Harrison was talking to the sheriff, “because Spruell had a little more trust than he should have with Cronk, and Cronk was handling some of those affairs.”

Chappell said the commissioners believe in complete transparency of financial matters.

“We want to be very open and forthright and that’s why we were turning everything over to the district attorney.

“We certainly wanted to know what the money was being used for and apparently there was one check that looked like it was written for ‘cash’ and maybe that was one that was used [illicitly].

“I think a few people got suspicious of that in that (the administration) office and that’s probably the red flag that got the investigation going.”

Cronk, arrested in July following the grand jury indictment, is scheduled for a plea hearing in district court Oct. 9. He is currently free on a $1,500 bond.

The allegations came to light “upon the discovery of multiple purchases by Undersheriff Cronk to include ‘heavy-duty equipment, auto parts, ammunition/firearms, gunsmithing services, hardware/supplies, clothing, pet products and computer equipment’,” stated Agent Watts in a lengthy affidavit that was among the unsealed documents. “These items were believed to be purchased for Undersheriff Cronk’s personal use and benefit.”

Cronk was appointed undersheriff in January 2011, after Spruell was sworn in, and his alleged illicit acquisitions began the next month, according to Watts’ affidavit. Cronk allegedly used department-issued credit cards and other funding sources available to high-ranking officers in the department.

Watts’ primary source of the information in the affidavit was MCSO Detective Lt. Ted Meador, who served as interim undersheriff for six months prior to the change of administration. (Former Undersheriff Dave Hart had resigned the position to run for sheriff himself, but was defeated by Spruell.)

Meador, who has worked in the department for seven years, explained to Watts that he’d become familiar with the spending protocols of the command staff in this position, and “began to suspect things were out of place” soon after Cronk replaced him because of credit-card receipts turned in by Cronk for various items that “appeared to have been for his personal use and benefit.”

Meador had said that “monthly expenditure receipts from the Command Staff are produced to the MCSO office secretary who, at the end of the month, provides them to Undersheriff Cronk for his approval,” Watts explained. “Once approved, copies of the receipts are provided to the Montezuma County Administrative Office.” In other words, Cronk was in the position of approving his own expenditures.

Meador cited questionable purchases by Cronk that included an $800 sniper scope bought in the spring of 2011, portable Honda generators Cronk allegedly acquired for his fifth-wheel RV trailer last summer using MCSO checks, and a $600 .45-caliber handgun purchased in Arizona in May using a department credit card.

Many other buys, including other weapons and ammunition, hardware to build a platform for his dog on an ATV, auto parts, and even a flagpole and a Canadian flag were listed in the affidavit.

“Lt. Meador further advised that the flagpoles in front of the MCSO do not include a Canadian flag,” Watts wryly noted.

Watts also states that Dave Hansen, the owner of Mesa Verde Motorsports, told him Cronk had purchased a $1,550 Honda generator there with MCSO funds in May 2012. Cronk said it was going to be used to operate targets on the department shooting range. But Cronk returned the generator a month later, Hansen told Watts, complaining it was too small to power everything in his fifth-wheel recreational vehicle and trading it in for two more generators and a cable specifically designed to hook them together for use on RVs, paying an additional $779 with a MCSO check.

Meador told Watts that he, too, was informed Cronk had claimed the generators were for the shooting range, but a Homelite generator was still being used there and he saw the Honda generators in Cronk’s possession.

Furse provided Watts with three pages of bank records, including photocopies of checks sent to him June 11 by Chappell, “who stated the information was concerning in light of the previous agreement made with MCSO Sheriff Dennis Spruell.” The agreement was described to Furse as “ceasing all activity associated with the ‘Montezuma County Sheriff ’s Office Contractual Services Fund’ checking account.”

Chappell told Furse the agreement had been made “due to the account having the County name associated with it as well as the account not having oversight.”

But just a few days previously, Cronk made a transaction involving an MCSO checking account, according to Watts, an incident he was also informed of by Meador.

Meador told Watts, according to the affidavit, that he was told by MCSO employee Judy Eggers of a “recent situation involving the issuance of a ‘money order’ by Undersheriff Cronk” that seemed “odd” to her, especially in light of its urgency.

Eggers told Meador she had been with MCSO office manager Patsy Hill when Hill, at the direction of Cronk, went to the bank to obtain a money order “in excess of $2,000.” It was then overnighted to an destination unknown to Meador.

This appeared to be related to transactions documented by the photocopies of the checks obtained by Chappell.

“Check [number redacted] was discov ered to have been issued to Dolores State Bank/cash on June 6, 2013, in the amount of $2955.00,” Watts noted in the affidavit, a draft signed by Cronk and also signed on the back by Hill. The memo line of the check was inscribed “Charlie’s Armory,” which Watts discovered is an online gun and ammunition store located in Miami, Fla.

“Your affiant suspects this particular check may have been related to the incident Eggers described to Lt. Meador,” Watts said, adding at the time he submitted the affidavit he had been unable to determine just what was purchased from Charlie’s Armory.

Cronk also was alleged to be in possession of handguns and a gun safe that had belonged to former Albuquerque, N.M., cop Brad Arhensfield, a friend who was serving time in federal prison for obstruction of justice. The felony charge was related to him tipping off a man who was the subject of an undercover drug investigation in Albuquerque.

A search warrant issued for Cronk’s Mancos home and vehicles was executed in June, and numerous weapons and related gear were seized, along with an Apple iPad and two MacBooks.

Watts asked the court for permission to keep all weapons discovered in the search until lawful ownership of them was established, “as well as to determine if they are weapons of interest by local, state or federal law enforcement.

“It is the experience of this affiant that the potential exists for some, if not all, weapons in possession of Robin Cronk to disappear after executing a search of his residence,” he explained, noting that there was evidence that Cronk previously had sold weapons that could be part of the investigation.

Cronk and Arhensfield had frequently exchanged emails during the latter’s six-month imprisonment, which was scheduled to end in August, according to the affidavit, and an official at the South Dakota prison had sent Watts copies of the emails.

Cronk “maintained constant communication with inmate Ahrensfield, to include regular monetary gifts via Western Union money wire transfers,” Watts observed.

In the emails, Cronk noted that he was “losing my taste for the Justice System more and more everyday,” and at another point stated, “I’m sick of the Justice System.”

Chappell said the situation showed clearly that Cronk did not belong in the justice system. “Certainly men like Cronk don’t belong in law enforcement,” he said. “Mr. Cronk was a little bit arrogant and thought he was above the law.

“And so it proved out he really wasn’t the man for the job.”

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