Montana State Prison

Prisoners walk into a unit at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge in this file photo.

Two theft by embezzlement and two official misconduct charges were recently filed against a Montana Correctional Enterprises employee who allegedly used state funds to purchase more than $200 worth of auto parts, which he then directed Montana State Prison inmates to install in his personal vehicles, court documents say.

Four misdemeanor charges were filed against Ross L. Wagner on March 28 in Powell County District Court. 

According to the affidavit filed in the case, Wagner worked for Montana Correctional Enterprises, a division of the state Department of Corrections that operates in conjunction with the Montana State Prison.

MCE both employs and trains state prison inmates to perform various jobs, aiming to keep them active and engaged while incarcerated.

Exactly a year before the charges were filed, on March 28, 2018, Wagner allegedly used MCE funds to purchase two fuel pumps and an interlock trailer ball from the NAPA Auto Parts store in Deer Lodge at a cost of $139.45 for use in his personal vehicle. He then directed inmates employed by MCE to install the fuel pumps into two vehicles he owned, the affidavit says.

A day later, Wagner allegedly purchased another fuel pump from the NAPA store at cost of $82.33 and again directed MCE inmate workers to install it into one of his personal vehicles, the affidavit states.

Wagner had supervisory control over inmates involved with MCE, the affidavit says, and was responsible for inmate work assignments and ensuring inmates were abiding by both state prison and MCE rules at the time the alleged embezzlement occurred.

The affidavit also notes Wagner did not have permission from MCE to purchase the three fuel pumps or the trailer ball for his personal vehicles and that he did not use the vehicles for work purposes.

Five months later, Wagner attempted to add a spark plug and spark plug wires for a personal vehicle not used at MCE to an existing MCE vehicle parts order from the NAPA store. The affidavit says another MCE employee made Wagner aware of this suspicious purchase, which Wagner then reportedly paid for and blamed NAPA for placing this personal purchase on the MCE order.

The Montana Division of Criminal of Investigation received a referral on Oct. 8 from the Montana Legislative Audit Division, which reportedly suspected Wagner used MCE funds improperly, according to John Strandell, the DCI investigations bureau chief.

The Legislative Audit Division conducts independent audits through the Legislative Audit Act to provide reliable information to state legislators and the public in hopes of improving accountability and compliance of state agencies, among other goals. Strandell said Montana statute requires the audit division to report any suspected criminal activity to the DCI.

Based on the info the DCI investigations bureau received from the Legislative Audit Division, Strandell said it opened up a joint investigation with the DOC's Investigations Bureau and assigned a DCI agent to the case.

According to the affidavit, the DCI agent interviewed Wagner about both purchase orders flagged as suspicious. Wagner told the agent he did not recognize the first purchase order and denied that the pumps went into his personal vehicles. When asked about the second purchase order, Wagner told the agent he bought the third pump with his own money but admitted to using inmate labor to install it on his personal vehicle, the affidavit says.

Strandell confirmed that the DCI and DOC joint investigation into the suspicious MCE purchases is closed and that they recently submitted their investigative report to the Powell County Attorney’s office.

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Patrick Moody, Powell County deputy attorney, used the facts from these reports to file the misdemeanor charges against Wagner, the affidavit says.

Moody oversees all crimes that occur at the Montana State Prison. He said in the four years he’s served as deputy county attorney, this is the first theft by embezzlement case involving the prison and its employees that has ever come across his desk.

“This is the first one I’ve ever seen in review of an extensive number of cases,” Moody said. “It’s not a common thing.”

Moody said a date for Wagner’s initial appearance in Powell County District Court has not been set and that he is not in law enforcement custody.

Amy Barton, interim communications director for the Department of Corrections, said Wednesday that she could not confirm or deny that Wagner is still employed with MCE at the state prison. Barton did say Wagner was hired as an employee with MCE in September 2008.

Wagner could not be immediately reached for comment. 

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