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Moorhead ELCA embezzlement scope keeps growing

MOORHEAD - The investigation into a bookkeeper's alleged embezzlement from a Moorhead-based church synod continues, and the latest search warrant affidavit shows the allegations are more serious than previously thought.

Preliminary audits revealed that Robert Duane Larson transferred more than $714,000 in unauthorized funds from the Northwestern Minnesota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, according to the affidavit filed Friday in Clay County District Court by Moorhead police.

Larson, 60, hasn't been criminally charged. He didn't return a phone message left Monday at his home in Wolverton, and past attempts to contact him have failed.

An affidavit filed in January showed police believed Larson had embezzled more than $250,000 from the synod by transferring the money to the nonprofit Rural Life Outreach program, for which he also served as volunteer bookkeeper.

Jon Evert, coordinator of the RLO program, said the $714,168.93 in unauthorized transfers came to light when Eide Bailly submitted a preliminary audit after the first search warrant was filed.

"As they kept looking, it got bigger and bigger," he said.

The final audit report is expected soon, possibly this week, but Evert said the amount of synod funds Larson allegedly funneled through the RLO isn't expected to change much.

The RLO doesn't have any of the money, he said.

"It was all spent," Evert said. "He found a way to get the money out just as fast as it came in."

Larson served as the synod's bookkeeper from September 2004 until he was fired by the synod's executive committee on Jan. 2 after confessing to financial misconduct, Bishop Lawrence Wohlrabe told church leaders and congregations in a Jan. 6 letter. Wohlrabe had the day off on Monday and wasn't available for comment on the preliminary audit.

Larson also volunteered as financial manager for the RLO program, a nonprofit that offers last-resort financial aid to farmers and others who need help paying their bills. The synod donates $1,000 annually to the program, which pays companies directly for the outstanding bills.

In the January affidavit, police said they suspected Larson of possibly using the embezzled money to pay off a 2007 car loan and 2008 house loan. Larson speculated in a police interview that a lot of the money may have gone toward his $150,000 house renovation.

The new affidavit shows police suspect Larson also used the embezzled funds to pay living expenses.

Bank statements from the RLO program showed unauthorized electronic debit payments were made consistently on a monthly basis since about 2007 to accounts that Evert believes were owned or controlled by Larson. Evert told police that the RLO does all of its business and donations with checks.

Warrants were granted March 1 to search Larson's account with Lake Region Electric Cooperative and his Verizon cell phone account, records show.

Authorities also served a search warrant at Larson's house on Jan. 10, seizing credit cards, bank statements and loan information, the affidavit states.

Evert said it's unclear what, if any, damage the RLO program will suffer because of Larson's alleged embezzling.

"It kind of depends on how the charges are filed and how they're resolved," he said.

In the meantime, the RLO isn't actively seeking people to assist, he said.

"We're trying to help those who contact us," he said.