Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part story detailing the fraud allegations that have rocked a Catholic center for higher learning and a Wyoming community. See Thursday’s Laramie Boomerang to read the beginning of this story.
Wyoming Catholic College in Lander fired Paul McCown, its chief financial officer, after he was accused of defrauding an investment firm out of $15 million.
Wyoming Catholic College board Chairman Dave Kellogg said McCown’s performance slipped in his third and final year, and it’s easy to imagine that May 11 was not a productive work day for Paul McCown. Sen. Cale Case pictures McCown sitting in his Wyoming Catholic College office, obsessively updating his online account at Wyoming Community Bank: Click…click…click…click…boom! The $15 million appears.
McCown wasted no time, the lawsuit claims. He immediately sent $10.5 million to a Goldman Sachs account set up in his and his wife Jacinta’s name, $10 million of which was subsequently transferred to Wyoming Catholic College as an anonymous donation. Most of the remaining $5 million, according to the lawsuit, was distributed to Tonkowich ($750,000); McCown’s father, Phillip McCown, Sr. ($375,000); a Michigan company, Trolan LLC, set up on McCown’s behalf by businessman Doug Tietz ($550,000); McCown’s brother-in-law and sister-in-law, Paul and Clair Alarcon ($750,000); and to the Wyoming Business Council to meet its payback demands ($841,863). According to the lawsuit, that left $933,137 of the money Ria R Squared transferred to McCown Enterprises still “unaccounted for.”
The money sent to Trolan and the involvement of Tietz are significant. In the summer of 2020, McCown hired Tietz’s firm, Great Dane Marketing Services, operating out of Tietz’s home in Troy, Michigan, to do a study of the college. Wyoming Catholic College Spokesperson Joseph Susanka confirmed that Tietz “has been a contracted consultant with Wyoming Catholic College since the spring of 2020, working primarily on recruitment and advancement marketing and publications.” Susanka said the college had no knowledge of the $550,000 that McCown had transferred to Trolan LLC from the $15 million Ria R Squared loan.
When the Tietz hire first surfaced in 2020, it puzzled some college staffers and at least one member of the college board of directors, who wondered why a Michigan firm was needed to do what had been previously done in-house, or which could have been better handled by local companies.
“I just thought,” said one person familiar with the Tietz situation, “What the hell are we doing going to some yahoo from Michigan when there’s lots of local talent in Wyoming?”
WyoFile made repeated unsuccessful attempts via voicemail to contact Tietz — who, like McCown, is a former member of the Troy city council — and his wife Amy Tietz, both listed as administrators of Trolan LLC.
Also unclear is what happened to the $15,385 and $1.1 million loans that McCown obtained through the federal PPP loan program. One of the accounts at Wyoming Community Bank that the feds seized in June was reported by FBI agent McGrath to contain $700,856.26.
The college placed McCown on administrative leave in early June, after being contacted by attorneys for Ria R Squared. When the investment firm officially filed its lawsuit in late June, McCown resigned from the college.
He continues to live in Lander, and former associates said they are amazed by McCown’s untroubled demeanor in the face of his serious legal and financial challenges. “He still goes to church, and the guys at the college don’t know whether to say ‘Hi’ or not,” one associate said.
Kendall Hayford the banker said he was completely deceived by his former friend and had no knowledge of the fraud McCown allegedly perpetrated in his name.
Hayford told WyoFile he’d been instructed by attorneys not to discuss the case, but he acknowledged some frustration in watching McCown calmly engage in his daily routine, including a regular session at the gym across from Wyoming Community Bank.
After parting ways with McCown, the college engaged the Lander accounting firm Fagnant, Lewis & Brinda to conduct a review of its finances. (Fagnant, Lewis & Brinda has also served as WyoFile’s auditor.) In a statement, the college said the audit found no problems aside from the alleged fraudulent donation by McCown. The college declined to share the report with WyoFile.
“To experience such a profound breach of trust by a leader of our institution has been both embarrassing and painful for Wyoming Catholic College,” the school wrote on July 7. “However, the college found no additional financial irregularities, and the Wyoming Catholic College has neither been sued nor is a defendant to the suit.”
Numerous troubling questions, however, remain unanswered.
Tonkowich, the college’s vice president of operations, who received $750,000 from McCown, was also briefly placed on administrative leave after the civil lawsuit was filed, but is now back at work full time. He told other college officials that McCown led him to believe that the transfer of $750,000 was related to Tonkowich’s small ownership stake in McCown Enterprises, they said.
Tonkowich declined to be interviewed, but shared a similar account in an email to WyoFile, stating that he was “unaware of the fraud” and that he was told by McCown that the “distribution [was] consistent with the 5% ownership stake I had in McCown Enterprises.” Tonkowich said he is working with Ria R Squared’s lawyers to return the money.
A college employee who asked to remain anonymous said that for the time being, Tonkowich is not allowed to handle any financial transactions for the college. Tonkowich remains president of the board at the Lander Chamber of Commerce, whose executive director, Owen Sweeney, also worked for nearly five years at Wyoming Catholic College. Sweeney did not return phone calls from WyoFile.
The day after its press release about the fraud, college President Glenn C. Arbery, a classical scholar, invoked “Dante’s Inferno” to describe the situation at the college. He explained that the college intended to return the $10 million even though it had already spent some money on expansion plans that the huge gift had momentarily made possible. The college employee who asked to remain anonymous told WyoFile that the school had incurred $200,000 in new architectural and engineering costs for work that cannot currently move forward.
“Many people, by no means exclusively those of us at WCC,” Arbery wrote on July 8, “have been deeply hurt, both personally and professionally, by the fraudulent activity allegedly committed by Mr. McCown. As of today, the money is in the process of being returned, and we have revised our plans to begin the renovation of the Baldwin building—a project that had generated great excitement in our community and the city of Lander and was slated to begin as early as next month. We had already incurred expenses, especially for architectural plans, but—thanks be to God—we had not yet committed ourselves to a construction project.”
Town and gown
Even as many small private colleges struggle with declines in traditional-student enrollment, Wyoming Catholic College has beaten the odds and appears to be stronger than ever in its 16-year existence. Only a few years ago, college board chair Kellogg said, he was involved in weekly meetings where “we would wonder on Wednesday if we were going to have to close this thing on Friday.”
Recent tax returns — albeit ones signed by Paul McCown — show increasing tuition revenue and growing donations (although nothing like the $10 million gift the college thought it had, which would have matched the college’s total fundraising from all sources for the past four years).
Wyoming Catholic College has managed to expand by pushing an “authentically Catholic” narrative that occasionally gains national media attention, and by promoting its incomparable surroundings — every freshman starts with a 21-day wilderness expedition in the Wind River Mountains. This fall’s freshman class, with 68 students, is the largest ever.
As the college has grown, it has purchased an increasing number of buildings in downtown Lander. “We plan to continue to grow in the coming years, so a physical plant that will support such growth is an obvious necessity,” said Susanka, the college’s vice president for advancement.
Recently unveiled plans for gaining control of a large block of real estate in the heart of Lander’s retail area around 3rd and Main streets have caused concern on two fronts. Would the increasing presence of nonprofit businesses — the tax-exempt National Outdoor Leadership School is another large employer and real-estate owner — undermine the property tax base that the city and county need? And would the amount of retail space in this vibrant area of downtown shrink radically if the college converted most of its acquisitions to administrative and classroom space?
At a community meeting this spring, college officials and their architects briefed the public about what the school could do if it were able to acquire additional buildings in the area — including some that weren’t currently up for sale. Some property owners with viable businesses in the targeted area were “aghast at seeing the college discuss how those properties could be repurposed,” said Missy White, a Lander City Council member who also runs a management-consulting business.
The college’s expansion ambitions come at a time when broader questions are being asked about its hiring and financial-oversight procedures.
Shortly after McCown resigned, the college parted ways with Kyle Clement, its director of horsemanship. Multiple sources told WyoFile that Clement was dismissed because of irregularities in the bills he submitted to the college — all of which were approved by McCown. These sources told WyoFile that the Clement irregularities were discovered in the audit by Fagnant, Lewis & Brinda — despite the college’s initial claim that the audit had come back clean aside from McCown’s alleged fraud.
Multiple sources said McCown didn’t closely scrutinize Clement’s submissions, even when others in the accounting office suggested that the bills were inflated.
In 2013, Houston cardiologist David Blackwood and his wife, Sharon, successfully sued Clement and his wife, Valerie, and their Rimrock Land & Cattle Co., accusing the Clements of defrauding them in a cattle operation in Brazoria County. A civil court jury awarded the Blackwoods $747,505 in damages, which was confirmed on appeal.
In a telephone interview with WyoFile, Kyle Clement vehemently denied any inappropriate dealings with the college and claimed that in job interviews with Arbery, Tonkowich and McCown, he had made the college aware of his past troubles in Texas.
“They sought me out for the job,” Clement said. “I told them, ‘Look, boys, you need to know something first.’” He said Tonkowich followed up with phone calls to lawyers in Texas and, fully aware of the Blackwood case, hired him anyway.
He said that disputes over billing with the college have been resolved, and that his problems with the school owe to differences he has with two board members whom he declined to name for the record.
“I can tell you one thing,” he said. “There’s more two-legged wolves in this place than I could ever have imagined.”
Observers suspect a combination of factors may be contributing to the college’s troubled record in hiring and overseeing employees. First, WCC faces the same challenge many businesses in Wyoming encounter: the applicant pool of trained and experienced professionals is often shallow. On top of that, a former top officer at the college said the school’s brand of “conservative Catholicism” tends to engender faith in new hires, rather than the healthy skepticism that is sometimes needed.
“It can be a little cultish, and there can be a little bit of a suspension of disbelief…” the former officer said. “I think there was a lot of that going on with Paul… he came in, he’s perceived as a savior, and a lot of people just were looking the other way.”
Aside from Arbery, who many praise for his moral and academic leadership, the college is led by a relatively young group of administrators, many of whom, like McCown, are graduates of Thomas Aquinas College in California. Tonkowich, Susanka and Kyle Washut, the dean of students, are also Aquinas grads.
Some people within the college and in the city of Lander wonder if the perceived “insular” nature of the leadership team, and an associated lack of transparency may have played a role in allowing the McCown imbroglio to occur.
An increasing number of Lander residents are calling on the college to release more information so that the college and Lander can move forward.
“I do not think we are close to finding out the depth of this story and the connections and damage within the community,” Sen. Case said.
As for McCown, plenty of questions remain about what he hoped to achieve through an alleged escalating fraud spree that included some confounding moments — such as immediately donating a huge chunk of the funds he obtained.
“What was he thinking? That’s the $64,000 question,” Kellogg said. “Nobody has any idea. I can personally understand embezzling $15 million, but I can’t understand and have no idea what he was thinking when he donated $10 million to the college.”