February 4, 2014

The Sac County farmer accused of paying more than $479,000 worth of bribes to a former West Central Cooperative sales manager for steep discounts on crop seed and other products alleges that he was slandered and defamed by the cooperative's chief executive in a series of stockholder meetings in 2011 after the alleged bribes were uncovered.

Bill Wollesen, along with his wife Kristi and John Wollesen, seek an unspecified amount of money to be determined by a jury, court records show.

The sales manager who has admitted to taking bribes from Bill Wollesen, 55, of Lake View, is set to be sentenced today in federal court in Sioux City. Chad Hartzler, 46, of Ames, pleaded guilty in October to a wire fraud charge and faces more than four years in prison.

Hartzler admitted he took nearly 40 bribes over the course of five years from Wollesen, according to state and federal court records. Hartzler was a gambling addict who used the money to bet on sports games.

Wollesen has denied he bribed Hartzler and has not been charged with a crime for it. His lawsuit alleges that West Central's chief executive officer and president, Jeffrey Stroburg, discussed the bribery scheme at eight town-hall-style meetings in May and June 2011.

Stroburg allegedly referred to Wollesen and Hartzler as a "deceptive duo" in the meetings and said they "lie and stole. They're liars and thieves, and it is just that simple," according to the lawsuit.

Stroburg denied the remarks in court documents.

"The allegations against Jeff Stroburg are denied and without merit," said Alicia Clancy, a spokeswoman for West Central.

The Wollesens claim that Stroburg's alleged comments were false and harmed their reputation, which caused them to lose money due to "lost sales of products and lost business opportunities," the lawsuit says.

Bill Wollesen and Hartzler are defendants in a separate lawsuit brought by Westco Agronomy - a West Central subsidiary - that seeks unspecified compensation for the alleged bribes-for-discounts scheme. The lawsuit is set for a July trial in Story County, and a judge ruled in December to consolidate it with the Wollesens' defamation lawsuit.

Hartzler confessed to the scheme in 2011 as it became more difficult for him to conceal it from West Central auditors in Ralston, court records show. He allegedly admitted to a West Central attorney that Wollesen first offered him $2,000 cash to get a $6,000 discount on soybean seed in the spring of 2005. Wollesen allegedly made the offer after Hartzler told him about his gambling debts.

Hartzler said he later gave discounts to Wollesen of up to 37 percent on seed corn and 25 percent on fertilizer, and that Wollesen sold some of the seed corn - without the proper license from seed giant Monsanto - to other area farmers at an inflated rate that was still cheaper than what they would have paid West Central.