Sycamore’s Ryan Weckerly of MorningStar Media pleads guilty to federal charges in $3M kickback scheme

Weckerly’s lawyer filed motion to change plea as part of Thursday hearing, records show

Sycamore businessman Ryan Weckerly was sentenced to one year and one day in federal prison Friday, June 17, 2022 by Judge William Conley at the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin in the federal courthouse in Madison, Wisconsin.

SYCAMORE – A Sycamore businessman pleaded guilty in front of a federal judge Thursday to charges related to a $3 million tax evasion and fraud scheme concocted with a former Wisconsin hospital executive.

Ryan Weckerly, 46, of Sycamore, president and CEO of MorningStar Media Group in Sycamore, is charged with wire fraud, tax evasion and aiding and abetting a false income tax return. Federal prosecutors say Weckerly took part in a five-year scheme to defraud Janesville, Wisconsin-based health system Mercyhealth out of $3 million.

He could face up to 23 years in jail, since federal wire fraud charges carry a maximum sentence of 20 years, and aiding and abetting a false income tax return could bring three years in prison.

Weckerly appeared in front of US District Judge William Conley for a plea hearing at 1 p.m. Thursday at the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, in the federal courthouse in Madison, Wisconsin. Weckerly also had to provide a DNA sample to the US Marshal’s office and forfeit his passport.

When asked by Conley if he understood the charges and wanted to plead guilty to charges of wire fraud and aiding and abetting a false income tax return, Weckerly said, “Yes, your honor.”

He is expected to be sentenced at 1 p.m. on March 15, and will be out on supervised release until at least then. A pre-sentencing agreement is due to the Unites States Probation Office by mid-February, said federal court officials Thursday.

Chicago-based attorney Steven Greenberg, Weckerly’s lawyer, appeared with the Sycamore businessman for the hearing Thursday. Both declined comment.

MorningStar Media Group did not respond to request for comment.

Prosecutors say Weckerly partnered with former Mercyhealth vice president of marketing and communications, Barbara Bortner, 57, of Milton, Wisconsin. Mercyhealth is a regional healthcare provider based in Janesville, Wisconsin, that has hospitals in Rockford and Harvard and another in the works in Crystal Lake.

Bortner pleaded guilty in front of Conley on Oct. 14, according to federal court records. She’s scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 17.

As part of Weckerly’s plea agreement, he will need to pay back restitution when he is sentenced.

Asst. US Attorney Aaron Wegner said Thursday what restitution payments will look like and how it may affect Weckerly’s businesses is “ultimately going to be determined at the sentence hearing.”

“But they’re both definitely fairly equally responsible,” Wegner said of Weckerly and Bortner.

Illinois business records show that Weckerly also co-owns, along with his wife, Karen Weckerly, local coffee shop Coroco Coffee Roaster Collective, 224 S. California St., located next door to MorningStar Media.

Federal prosecutors said that Weckerly, in partnership with Bortner, falsified tax documents and sent inflated invoices, shuffling large sums of money throughout multiple bank accounts for years.

Bortner was charged with wire fraud and tax evasion. Court records show prosecutors had been setting up the plea deal since early August, and both Bortner and Weckerly agreed to plead guilty.

Bortner was fired from the health system before the charges were announced Sept. 1, according to a letter obtained by the Daily Chronicle sent by Mercyhealth President and CEO Javon Bea.

It’s unclear whether Weckerly remains employed with MorningStar Media Group. According to records from the Illinois Secretary of State’s Office, Weckerly was listed as the president of MorningStar as of 2021 for the corporation.

According to federal court records, the two concocted the kickback scheme in February 2015. Weckerly would submit inflated invoices for marketing work at Mercyhealth and Bortner would receive kickbacks in return. They also agreed that Bortner would continue using Morningstar Media Group as the health system’s primary ad agency.

According to the proposed plea agreements outlined in federal court documents, Bortner agreed that she owes the Internal Service Revenue more than $777,000 in restitution. Weckerly has agreed he owes the IRS $30,419 in restitution, according to court records. They both agreed that the total amount of the scheme came out to about $3.14 million from February 2015 to mid-2020.

Federal wire fraud charges carry a sentence of up to 20 years in federal prison and fines up to $250,000. As part of the proposed plea agreement, Weckerly and Bortner have both agreed to pay an additional amount in restitution that has not yet been determined, according to court records. At their sentencing, both will be required to pay the IRS back taxes immediately, including through asset seizure, records show.

When asked whether either Weckerly or Bortner has paid any restitution thus far, Wegner said “not that we know of.”

This is a developing story which will be updated.

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