October 18, 2013

A former West Central Cooperative sales manager admitted in federal court Thursday that he took more than $479,000 worth of bribes from a Sac County farmer in exchange for steep discounts on crop seed and other products.

Chad A. Hartzler, 45, of Ames, pleaded guilty to a wire fraud charge, under a deal with prosecutors that could put him in prison for more than four years. A hearing in which a judge will determine his punishment has not been set, according to court records.

Hartzler admitted he took nearly 40 bribes over the course of five years from farmer Bill Wollesen, of Lake View, according to state and federal court records. Hartzler was a gambling addict who used the money to bet on sports games.

Wollesen has denied he bribed Hartzler.

Both men are defendants in a West Central lawsuit that seeks unspecified compensation for the alleged bribes-for-discounts scheme.

"We appreciate the efforts of the U.S. Attorney's office in seeking justice against Chad Hartzler," West Central said in a prepared statement Thursday. "West Central continues to seek damages against those who were involved with Mr. Hartzler's illegal conduct. Today's plea agreement in the criminal court confirms wrongdoing in the eyes of the federal justice system."

The lawsuit is set for a July trial in Story County.

Hartzler confessed to the scheme in 2011 as it became more difficult for him to conceal it from West Central auditors in Ralston, court records show. He allegedly admitted to a West Central attorney that Wollesen first offered him $2,000 cash to get a $6,000 discount on soybean seed in the spring of 2005. Wollesen allegedly made the offer after Hartzler told him about his gambling debts.

Hartzler said he later gave discounts to Wollesen of up to 37 percent on seed corn and 25 percent on fertilizer, and that Wollesen sold some of the seed corn - without the proper license from seed giant Monsanto - to other area farmers at an inflated rate that was still cheaper than what they would have paid West Central.

Most of the alleged bribes were paid by check, which led to the federal wire fraud charge. Prosecutors say the money crossed state lines - making it a federal crime - because the deposited checks were processed electronically through a Federal Reserve office in Chicago. Wollesen has not been charged with a crime related to the alleged scheme.

(The Associated Press contributed to this article)