Michael McKinnon
Michael McKinnon
DENISON - A former Denison fire chief pleaded guilty Monday to a felony theft charge for allegedly stealing more than $70,000 from the town's fire department.

Michael McKinnon, 42, who was fire chief for about 11 years until he resigned in 2010 amid a state investigation into his department's questionable spending, admitted to a judge that he owned and operated businesses that billed the department for equipment and services they didn't provide, and that he paid for personal items with taxpayer dollars.

"That money went into your pocket, and came out of the city's pocket?" District Judge Edward Jacobson asked McKinnon in a Denison courtroom Monday.

"Yes," McKinnon quietly replied.

He faces up to 10 years in prison for the charge when he is sentenced Feb. 11. The Iowa Attorney General's office has agreed to drop a second charge for felonious misconduct in office as part of the plea agreement.

The Auditor of State's office 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 for training and other services. City leaders were not aware that McKinnon owned the businesses, the audit report said.

McKinnon also allegedly paid for electronics, clothing, a boat motor and a riding lawn mower with fire department money, which McKinnon allegedly conceded in emails. He did not admit to those specific purchases at Monday's court hearing.

But Iowa law prohibits a judge from forcing him to pay back most what he allegedly stole because the city's insurer has already repaid about $72,000. McKinnon will pay more than $9,000 to cover the costs of the state audit, court records show.

McKinnon now works as the Fire Science coordinator for San Juan College in Farmington, N.M., where he is also captain of a county fire department, according to the college's website.