The unusual claims from the pastor of an international Hmong program at an Inver Grove Heights church quickly raised suspicions among officials with the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.
Leon Piepenbrink claimed he needed reimbursement for a gun, security system and bulletproof glass because people were trying to kill him, court papers say.
Piepenbrink, 51, of St. Paul, who was the synod’s Hmong ministries pastor for five years until last August, later admitted to church officials that he made up the stories and intended to use the money for his own purposes, according to court documents. In all, he allegedly stole nearly $70,000 intended for the program from the synod, the third-biggest Lutheran church body in the United States.
As Asian ministry coordinator, he trained leaders and pastors to non-English speaking Asian populations, mostly Hmong, throughout the country.
Todd Poppe, the synod’s chief financial officer, said Piepenbrink had direct access to synod funds without proper protocols and oversight, which he said was a rare occurrence in the organization. Once church officials learned of the alleged misappropriation, they examined internal controls for all of its missions globally and found no other funds without appropriate internal controls.
Piepenbrink graduated from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in Mequon, Wis., in 1986, was ordained and went on to several public ministries, the synod said on Wednesday.
“His divine call as Asian ministry coordinator was terminated in August 2010 when the synod became aware of the misappropriation,” the church said in a statement.
Piepenbrink was charged in Dakota County District Court with seven felony counts of theft by swindle from the synod’s operating funds.
In making his unusual expense requests, a criminal complaint says, Piepenbrink went so far as to tell church officials that last June 16 a car sped by him and someone inside fired a shot at his car on Hwy. 55 near Hastings.
Church officials came to believe the claim was false and combed through bank records of two of the synod’s funds to which Piepenbrink had access. He later met with a synod financial officer and told him which funds he used for his personal needs and which were spent on the ministry, court documents said.
Piepenbrink could not be reached for comment.
The Inver Grove Heights Police Department on Wednesday refused to release a public incident report related to the case.
main source: startribune