Michael McKinnon
Michael McKinnon
March 26, 2013


Michael McKinnon sat with his head in his hands in the entryway of the Crawford County Sheriff's Office on Monday and sobbed.

The penalty for the thefts he committed against the Denison Fire Department - his department, of which he was chief for 11 years - were finally very real. McKinnon was scared.

He sat in that entryway with another man who tried to allay the fears of what lay ahead:

Two days in the county jail, while his defense attorney launched an appeal. Then off to an eastern Iowa prison, where he would start the first of a possible 10 years in prison.

"All those things I hear about that happen in prison," McKinnon quivered. "I can't do it."

McKinnon, a 42-year-old father of two, stood in front of a judge just 30 minutes before in a district courtroom and cried for leniency. He admitted in January to stealing more than $70,000 over the course of five years from the fire department and pleaded guilty to felony theft.

McKinnon paid for personal items, such as a boat motor and power tools, with department money. He billed the department for services his fire-training businesses didn't provide. And when city officials began to question the actions, McKinnon threatened them.

District judge Jeffrey Poulson had three options on Monday when he decided McKinnon's fate:

- A deferred judgment, in which McKinnon could wipe his criminal slate clean if he abided by the rules of his probation. He would not be a felon and could keep his job as fire science coordinator at a New Mexico college. He would pay back more than $20,000 for the thefts and the state audit that uncovered them.

- A suspended prison sentence, in which McKinnon would be a felon and fired from his college job, but he would serve no prison time if he abided his probation. That was the recommendation of a pre-sentence investigation report by the Iowa Department of Corrections. But Poulson doubted that McKinnon would be able to repay the money he owed without the high-paying job.

- A prison sentence of up to 10 years, of which McKinnon would likely serve less than half if he was well-behaved.

"I know I messed up. Real bad," McKinnon began his plea to Poulson on Monday. "I'll never be welcomed back in this town that I love. ... I'm so scared that if I lose my job I won't be able to support my family. ... Please, please think of my family."

A handful of the 30 or so people in the courtroom whimpered and teared and sniffled.

A psychologist's report that McKinnon submitted to support his request for a deferred judgment said McKinnon suffers from depression and that his thefts might have been caused in part by post traumatic stress disorder - which the psychologist claimed was a result of McKinnon's high-stress job as fire chief.

"I'm sympathetic to your admissions today, to your concerns about your family and your job," Poulson said. "This is a large amount of money, done over a large amount of time, done in a manner of ways. ... All of these things add up to the fact that a deferred judgment is simply not appropriate."

Poulson chose prison.

"This will deter other officials from committing these crimes," he said.

McKinnon left the Denison department in 2010 to work for San Juan College in Farmington, N.M., where he was also a captain of a county fire department, according to the college's website.

The Auditor of State's office later found about $96,000 worth of questionable spending by the Denison Fire Department from 2005 to 2010, it reported in November 2011. State auditors found that nearly $40,000 was paid to McKinnon's businesses in that five-year period. City leaders were not aware that McKinnon owned the businesses, the audit report said.

"This defendant is not someone who made a single poor decision to steal and instantly regretted it," prosecutor Rob Sand, an assistant Iowa attorney general, wrote in support of the prison sentence. "Instead, this defendant's acts demonstrate an enduring attitude of entitlement, denial, minimization and vindictiveness."

Sand wrote that McKinnon made several initial threats to city officials as they asked for more information about the fire department's expenditures. McKinnon allegedly called city officials "childish and immature" and wrote in an email that "this is borderline harassment. I'm serious!"

McKinnon also tried to conceal the thefts when he purchased duplicate items that he had previously bought with department money for personal use and took the items to the fire station after the investigation began. He wrote to state auditors that "a local firefighter has contacted me and told me that several 'missing' items are reappearing."

Sand told the Daily Times Herald that McKinnon's punishment will deter other public officials from committing similar crimes.

"We are pleased with the judge's decision," he said. "Financial crimes, particularly by individuals holding the public's trust, should be taken as seriously as this judge has today."

McKinnon's friends and family declined to comment for this article.

McKinnon's attorney, Montgomery Brown, of West Des Moines, said he will appeal the prison sentence because it's too harsh.

"We'll take a look at whether there was a sufficient basis for rejecting the suspended (prison) sentence," he told the Times Herald.

Brown said the best way to prevent crimes similar to McKinnon's thefts is to increase the oversight of government spending.

"Tighten up the controls at the county or municipality," he concluded. "That produces the certainty of capture. That's the deterrent."