Granddaughter of Minnesota philanthropist accused of embezzling $500,000

ST. PAUL -- The granddaughter of one of St. Paul's most prolific philanthropists has been charged with stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from her former employer.Tawnee Marie Nasseff, 48, was charged Monday via summons with six counts of ...
Emergency personnel were on the scene May 3 when the school bus crashed north of Bemidji, Minn. (Submitted photo)

ST. PAUL -- The granddaughter of one of St. Paul’s most prolific philanthropists has been charged with stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from her former employer.

Tawnee Marie Nasseff, 48, was charged Monday via summons with six counts of theft by swindle for misappropriating more than $500,000 from a St. Paul law firm she worked at for nearly 20 years, according to the criminal complaint filed against her in Ramsey County District Court.

She could not be reached for comment on the allegations and no attorney was listed for her in court records, though her criminal complaint suggests she has hired an lawyer.

Tawnee Nasseff is the daughter of the late John “Mickey” Nasseff Jr. and the granddaughter of the late John Michael Nasseff. John Michael Nasseff was a senior West Publishing executive before becoming one of St. Paul’s most prolific donors. He died in February.

John “Mickey” Nasseff Jr. was a businessman who founded Nasseff Mechanical Contractors.  He died in a motorcycle crash in western Wisconsin in 2012.

Reached at home Monday afternoon, Art Nasseff, Tawnee Nasseff’s uncle, and his wife, Susan, said they hadn’t heard about the allegations.

“We are very surprised by this. This is nothing we’d ever think she would do,” Art Nasseff said. “Tawnee … (has) always been very honest, very straight-forward.”

Her sister, Trina Pontrelli, said she was surprised by news of the charges.

“I am in shock,” Pontrelli said. “I don’t believe it. I don’t have any words.”

Tawnee Nasseff was fired from her job as a bookkeeper at Paige J. Donnelly Ltd. in August 2016 after the law firm discovered she had been overpaying herself, authorities say.

Though she initially denied the conduct, she later admitted it and paid the money back, the complaint said.

The incident prompted the company to hire an accounting firm to conduct an in-depth investigation into her handling of the firm’s finances.

She misappropriated some $860,000 from her employer between 2010 and the date she was fired, according to the accounting firm’s December 2017 findings, legal documents say.

Her scheme relied heavily on two strategies, authorities say. In several cases, Tawnee Nasseff would write checks from the law firm’s bank account at Wells Fargo and use the money to pay off her personal credit card, the complaint said. When she listed the checks in the firm’s ledger, she indicated the funds were used to cover the company’s legitimate business expenses instead, authorities say.

In other instances, she would transfer funds directly from the firm’s bank account to her own and then alter bank statements to reflect otherwise, according to the complaint.

Law enforcement began investigating her in the fall of 2016, focusing on the previous five years as applicable under the state’s statute of limitation laws.

In that time period, officers discovered Tawnee Nasseff stole more than $500,000 from the firm, according to the complaint.

The law firm issued the following statement about the matter:

“Paige J. Donnelly, Ltd. is a family-run business with a high level of trust amongst our employees. We thought of this former employee as a member of our family, and we were shocked to learn that she betrayed our trust. We have pursued legal charges to reclaim the money that was stolen from our company,” the statement read.

Tawnee Nasseff’s next court appearance on the charges is scheduled for June 14.