By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD – Former Winnebago County Purchasing Director Sally Claassen was released from federal prison Monday after serving almost all of her two-year sentence for embezzling more than $400,000 of taxpayer money.
Claassen was sentenced in September 2016 after an FBI investigation uncovered an array of fishy financial transactions involving county cash. Among them was evidence investigators say showed Claassen used county credit cards for vacations and home improvement projects.
Authorities also alleged that she falsified invoices to a number of suspicious vendors, from whom she took cash she directed to her personal accounts. She was placed on leave in June 2015 and resigned in September. She pleaded guilty in June 2016 to two counts of theft from a program receiving federal funds.
Claassen satisfied a court order to repay $440,369.83 in restitution last year. She must now serve 100 hours of community service.
The FBI became involved after Sheriff Gary Caruana’s office was examined how the county’s 1-percent sales tax fund was being used. The sheriff then contacted the Winnebago County State’s Attorney’s Office, which ultimately led to a federal investigation.
The probe flung the county into a tailspin, casting a dark cloud over former Chairman Scott Christiansen’s administration. It capped a number questionable purchases such as a sauna the county bought for Christiansen’s house, chocolate bars purchased with county funds for a campaign fundraiser and an IT spending snafu. Christiansen said the chocolate purchase was made to clean up a mess left by others, which seemed to point the finger at Claassen. He later announced amid the uproar that he would not seek re-election, saying he wanted to spend more time with family on focus on his personal health.
Frank Haney has since taken over, coming into office with a vow to make the county more transparent and financial safeguards more secure.
“I am very proud of the transformation of our Purchasing Department,” Haney said via Facebook. “This includes the leadership of our Purchasing Director Ann Johns and her team, as well as the unanimous support of our Operations Committee and County Board in passing a major policy overhaul related to approach to purchasing.”
She served her prison sentence in Chicago. R.