GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A preliminary hearing began that began Friday in the embezzlement case against a former Kent County commissioner has been continued.
Michael Wawee Jr. was charged in early February with embezzlement under $20,000 and false pretenses over $1,000 in connection to his work with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Grand Rapids.
Wawee used his position with the diocese – where he had worked for over 20 years — to overcharge grieving families for the engraving of grave markers at five diocese-operated cemeteries, according to court documents. Police said the diocese didn’t know about the overcharging or kickbacks.
Friday in court, prosecutors called several witnesses to the stand and asked them how much they were charged for engraving services through Wawee. The witnesses said it was usually between $175 and $195.
Two engravers were also called to testify and were asked about what they charged for the service.
Both said they have two pricing schedules — one retail and one wholesale. They testified that when they were contracted through a funeral home or cemetery, they offer their wholesale cost and got paid directly from the funeral home or cemetery — except when dealing with Wawee.
When dealing with Wawee, the engravers testified they’d get a check directly from the family, usually closer to the retail cost of the engraving. They would keep their usual wholesale charge and send anything extra to Wawee, which they called the “Mikey Deal.”
Prosecutors said the “Mikey Deal” meant Wawee was getting around $100 off of each engraving and keeping it for himself.
The defense said Wawee was just collecting a commission — not a kickback.
In mid-February, Wawee resigned from the Kent County Board of Commissioners, and released a statement in which he declared his innocence:
“In our Country, we’re blessed enough to have a judicial system where we are innocent until proven guilty. That being said, I need to focus my energy on my family and proving my innocence. That unfortunately means I will not be able to dedicate the time necessary to represent my constituents.”
Wawee is expected back in court in September for the continuation of his preliminary hearing.
Prosecutors said they could also file additional charges in the case after a witness said he saw Wawee pull a gun on one of his coworkers at a cemetery – even though the witness said he thought it occurred in a joking manner.