Hall County Court Judge Arthur Wetzel on Friday bound former Northwest High School music teacher David Sackschewsky over to District Court on seven charges that he improperly took money from the school’s 14 Karat Gold show choir.
The only witness to take the stand at the preliminary hearing was investigator Jarret Daugherty of the Grand Island Police Department. In response to questions from prosecutor Sarah Hinrichs, Daugherty said Sackschewsky received $179,041.28 in show choir funds over the last several years. Daugherty said he deducted legitimate expenses before coming up with that number. Of the total, $24,400 in cash was withdrawn from ATMs, using a 14 Karat Gold debit card.
Defense attorney Mark Porto argued that the 14 Karat Gold board was very loosely organized. There are no written rules governing who will spend the money and on what it may be spent, Porto said. None of the checks to Sackschewsky were signed by a person who did not have authority to sign them, he said. The person who signed the checks over the last couple of years, Laurie Stutzman, is Sackschewsky’s sister, but she still had the authority to sign the checks, Porto said.
There is no evidence that any show choir supporters were disappointed with the quality of performance, or felt they didn’t get what they paid for, Porto said. There is also no evidence that Sackschewsky deceived anyone, Porto said. If Northwest paid for high-quality choreography, why shouldn’t the show’s director be well-compensated, he asked.
Wetzel agreed with Porto that the show choir booster group had very few rules or guidelines. Northwest, the judge said, showed “a complete lack of institutional control” in allowing the program to operate unfettered without any oversight by the school district. That was not the fault of any individual, as far as Wetzel could tell.
But Sackschewsky still had a fiduciary responsibility to act in the best interests of the show choir. And he did not meet that responsibility, Wetzel said. The judge also agreed with Hinrichs that the case involved fictitious invoices.
Sackschewsky, 47, will be arraigned in Hall County District Court at 9 a.m. Aug. 27. He faces seven felony charges.
Daugherty said he was contacted in September of 2018 by First National Bank of Omaha, which had some concerns about an account assigned to the 14 Karat Gold show choir. In the past, Northwest decided to have the show choir somewhat separate from the school, partly because show choir productions sometimes have religious aspects, Daugherty said.
In addition to paying a fee to participate, Northwest show choir members were responsible for raising a certain amount of funds. Local businesses also provided support.
As of last year, three people were allowed to sign show choir checks. Two of them were former treasurers who no longer had kids in school. The current signer was considered to be Stutzman.
Sackschewsky himself was never listed as a signer on the account, Daugherty said in response to a question from Hinrichs.
Over the last two or three years, Daugherty said, there were a lot of checks written to one individual — Sackschewsky.
In 2015 and ‘16, the show choir checks were more realistic, Daugherty said. They were written in specific amounts, and it stated in the memo line what the payment was for. But when Stutzman became the sole signer of the checks, the checks were written for round figures, and no information was contained in the memo line.
Daugherty interviewed Stutzman, who said she wrote the checks at Sackschewsky’s directions. “He would tell her ‘I need this much money’ and she would write the check,” Daugherty said.
The debit card wasn’t really used much until about 2016, Daugherty said. But in July 2018, it began to be used almost on a daily basis.
That month, Sackschewsky made his first ATM cash withdrawal with the card, when he was on a family vacation in Branson, Mo. All of the other withdrawals were made in Grand Island, On July 26, 2018, Sackschewsky called the First National Bank of Omaha, asking why his card wouldn’t work. He was attempting to buy eyeglasses, Daugherty said.
At the same time, Sackschewsky’s personal finances were “fairly dire,” Daugherty said.
The debit card does not have Sackschewsky’s name on it. It is embossed with the name of the show choir and a former treasurer.
Sackschewsky produced invoices from a number of companies that are involved in theater and music. In entering those invoices into evidence, Hinrichs said they are fraudulent.
Hinrichs said Sackschewsky used show choir money to pay for personal expenses — for food, at gas stations and a nail salon.
According to Porto, Sackschewsky was supposed to receive a monthly stipend from Northwest show choir boosters. Porto told Daugherty that in or around 2005, Sackschewsky made an agreement with Barry Schultz that boosters would pay him $2,000 a month. In an investigation stretching back to 2004, Daugherty said he couldn’t find anyone who was aware of that agreement.
Daugherty said some Northwest parents described Sackschewsky as generous with his students. He would buy them treats and snacks, they said.
Porto emphasized that the Northwest show choir program has been very successful. Presenting a high-quality show would only naturally have expenses, he said.
There were no rules that the 14 Karat Gold could not compensate its director, Porto said. Board members “filter in and out,” so there’s no consistent understanding of what can be done, Porto said.
The court was relying only on Daugherty’s opinion what show choir expenses were legitimate, Porto said.
There is also no evidence, Porto said, that Sackschewsky took possession of the debit card inappropriately.
As far as he knows, supporters were receiving what they expected from Northwest, which was “a really great show choir program,” Porto said.
At least eight Sackschewsky supporters were in the courtroom, seated together in the front row.