MILWAUKEE -- The former Milwaukee County Register of Deeds is the subject of a federal fraud investigation centered around his office and an IT contractor, alleging false invoices were billed to the county over several years, totaling more than $2 million, according to recently unsealed court filings.
John LaFave, who served as the county's Register of Deeds since 2003, resigned from his post last week. LaFave also served in the Wisconsin Legislature for 10 years. No charges have been filed in relation to the investigation.
According to a search warrant affidavit filed in Milwaukee federal court in early February, the county's auditor had been conducting an investigation into LaFave and payments authorized to internet technology Superior Support Resources (SSR), Inc., which has a contract with the county indexing documents and redacting information.
Investigators said Matthew Hart, the county auditor, "uncovered extensive email communications between LaFave and [SSR Finance Director Michael] Sobie that showed that the two were involved in a scheme to get money to SSR for work that the company had not performed," according to court filings.
Beginning in 2010 and through 2017, investigators believe false invoices from SSR to the county totaled more than $2.3 million, with the money being set aside in a separate account to pay for services outside of county contracts and third-party vendors.
Investigators allege LaFave directed Sobie to create fraudulent invoices to make it appear the Brookfield-based company had done work for the Register of Deeds office, Sobie would then forward the invoice to LaFave, who would submit it to the county for payment, according to a search warrant affidavit filed for the Brookfield company's offices.
Court documents don't indicate the money paid out through false invoices was used for personal use, but was put into a separate account by SSR which would use the money to pay third-party vendors doing county work on behalf of SSR, but not authorized to do work with the county.
LaFave's attorney, Mike Maistelman, declined to comment on the federal investigation, citing "Wisconsin Supreme Court rules preclude me from commenting on an ongoing matter." However, Maistelman tried to dispel any correlation between LaFave stepping down from his post and the federal investigation.
"He had been planning on retiring at this point in his career anyway," Maistelman said when reached by phone Wednesday.
A message left on a cell phone listed for Sobie went unreturned. A company spokesman said Wednesday afternoon Sobie left SSR sometime last year and his departure from the company was unrelated to the investigation involving the Milwaukee County Register of Deeds office, which has been an SSR client for many years.
"Earlier this year, the FBI came to our office to get a variety of records and seek additional information about our client," said Sarit Singhal. "We are cooperating fully with the authorities and plan to continue that cooperation. We are confident we have not done anything improper, and we are performing an internal investigation to verify as such. At this point, we have not seen anything that is of concern."
The Register of Deeds handles such records and birth and death certificates for the county. Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele was unavailable to talk on camera, but said in an emailed statement he's "angry" on behalf of the people of Milwaukee.
"I'm angry at what was not just a theft of public resources, but a betrayal of public trust. The many incredible public servants I get to work with at the County work hard every day to provide the best service we can, make the most responsible use of the public dollars, and take pride in doing that very well," Abele said. "The Governor appoints the Register of Deeds and I have already conveyed to him that I would like someone I know I can work with aggressively towards the most transparent, accountable, and efficient R.O.D. office we can have. I am absolutely committed to doing everything in my power to help the appointee do exactly that. The public deserves no less.”
Investigators are also looking into whether LaFave and another county IT services contractor, Iowa-based Fidlar Technologies, were involved in a similar scheme of creating false invoices and setting aside the money in a separate account. FOX6's calls to the company were received, but not returned.