In 2009, I sat down with Tea Fire Chief Grant Van Riesen and Denae Baustian to talk about the volunteer organization’s funding for the coming year. I was working at a weekly newspaper in Tea at the time.
Van Riesen was about to ask for more money from the spendthrift townships who help pay the department’s bills every year. That’s a hard conversation to have, because township boards don’t have much money to throw around.
Van Riesen’s budget proposal and accompanying justification needed to be clear and convincing enough to keep him from being tossed out of the township board meetings on his tail.
Baustian was the TFD finance officer, and she helped Van Riesen put the proposals together. She helpfully offered spreadsheets documenting the department’s financial woes throughout the interview.
Ultimately, the townships paid. They had to. They had to have fire protection.
I recently told a Tea firefighter about that interview, about Baustian’s telling me how strapped for cash the department was.
"She used to tell us the same thing," he said.
Of course they needed money. Baustian was robbing them blind.
On Monday, she was sentenced to eight years in prison for shaving more than $170,000 off the TFD budget over two years to fuel a gambling addiction.
Anyway, Van Riesen called me up after the story went online. He said he wanted to make sure we had what we needed from the department in response to the sentencing. He said some of the same things press officer Dale Cook told Wischmeyer.
The TFD wanted to thank Lincoln County State’s Attorney Tom Wollman, he said. He wanted to thank the firefighters who donated their time to put the department back together, and said his fellow volunteers were grateful for the support of Tea and the townships.
They were pleased justice was done.
Then Van Riesen said something else. “We respect that (Denae) is a wife and a mother and a grandmother, and we respect that this is going to be difficult for them.”
It already has been. Baustian brought $400 she’d planned to use for Christmas presents for her grandkids to court to make a payment on her staggering restitution bill.
She will be home for Christmas. Judges often let those about to go to prison this close to Christmas to report after the holiday. After Christmas, Baustian will be away from her family for a very long time.
Van Riesen says he can imagine how difficult things will be. “I know if I had to leave my family behind on Dec. 26, it would be awfully hard on them,” Van Riesen said.