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Jury finds in favor of Stettler
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MONROE - A Green County Circuit Court jury Thursday found in favor of Steve Stettler and Glennette Stettler, Brodhead, defendants in a civil case brought against them by 17 former members of Decatur Swiss Cheese Co-op.

The jury trial began Monday, Jan. 10.

The former members had alleged the Stettlers, who own and manage Decatur Dairy in Brodhead, altered accounting records, created a second set of account books, filed false reports to the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection regarding the amount of milk processed, and engaged in other activities - all in an effort to mislead co-op members about the amount of proceeds they had earned in the co-op.

The members of the co-op provide milk for processing into cheese at Decatur Dairy and are paid proportionately from the profits of cheese sales. The co-op entered into a contract with cheesemaker Steve Stettler in 1981, and the contract was renewed annually until Dec. 31, 2007.

According to the lawsuit, a fraud examiner hired by the co-op, Brian Holmes of RSM McGladrey, reported in November 2006 that he found "arbitrarily-reduced weights and arbitrary reductions in sales price per pound of cheese reported to the co-op and farmer/patrons" from Jan. 1, 2002 to at least Sept. 30, 2006. He estimated the changes resulted in a loss of about $600,000 to the co-op's members. The investigator also said the Stettlers and the dairy shorted the members more than $6,000 for cheese sold at the dairy's retail store.

The plaintiffs, former co-op members, were Robert Atkinson, Dan Ballmer, George Crooks, Dale Heath, James Lawrence, Dean Lederman, Joel Nieman, Brad Saunders, David Schenk, Herman Wellnitz, Joseph Wellnitz, Mark Wellnitz, Phil Wellnitz, James Wilke, Robert Wolfe, Jeff Border and Ken Heller.

They were seeking actual damages, exemplary damages for triple the amount of actual damages, all costs of investigation and litigation, and punitive damages.

The suit against Stettler was filed first in August 2008 in Rock County. The Rock County court sent the case to Green County, where it was filed in March 2009. Lafayette County Judge William D. Johnston presided.

The suit originally named as defendants Decatur Dairy; Steven and Glennette Stettler; the accounting firm Boeke & Associations; the accounting firm's owner, Roger Boeke, and the dairy's insurance companies. The court dismissed the case against all but the Stettlers and Decatur Dairy prior to going to trial.

The court based its decision on a unanimous vote by co-op patrons on May 23, 2007, which authorized the co-op's new board to discontinue and dismiss all suits and claims against Decatur Dairy and Steve Stettler, president of Decatur Dairy. By then, over the course of the legal proceedings, about a dozen of the co-op's 75 members had left the co-op.

A previous case with similar allegations was filed in February 2007 by the co-op's former board of directors. In May 2007, Green County Circuit Court Judge James Beer dismissed the complaint. In its ruling, the court found that allegations made by the former board were not proven.

When the latest case was first filed in 2008, Stettler said the attempt to sue him and Decatur Dairy was " ...the same thing just dressed differently." At that time, he said, there was no new evidence and the issues argued by the farmers had already been resolved with the new co-op board and co-op members, and that the farmers tried to sue him in Rock County because they weren't happy with how the previous suit was settled in Green County.