How a Shakopee school boss' inept caper ended in prison

Among the petty riches of Superintendent Rod Thompson's years-long spree: cowboy boots and an XBox.

Among the petty riches of Superintendent Rod Thompson's years-long spree: cowboy boots and an XBox. Scott County Jail

The difference between a crime and a caper is how easily it can be believed in the aftermath. The ballad of Rod Thompson -- a big man with a meaty face and a fringe of blond hair -- is the latter.

Thompson’s caper was a scheme largely built on promises and power, set in the southwest metro suburb of Shakopee. The kind of place with good schools and sleepy neighborhoods. This is where the superintendent of the city's schools made his Faustian bargain with construction firm ICS Consulting.

“Faustian” might not be the right word. Their relationship looked less like a deal with the devil and more like a sixth-grader making his kid brother do dumb favors for the privilege of riding his dirt bike.

Between 2009 and 2016, ICS paid Thompson for more than $5,000 worth of Vikings, Timberwolves, and Twins games -- plus a trip to Nashville, where he stayed in a five-star hotel.

In 2012, he demanded the company remodel his Shakopee basement and lay down a concrete patio -- a job worth $44,400, if he intended to pay for any of it. He didn’t.

That same year, he reimbursed the company -- and then some -- by helping it land some hefty contracts with Shakopee's schools.

There it was -- favors bought and paid for, the whole thing settled snugly under the rug – with Thompson settled above it all in a high-earning position and a place of esteem in the community.

But the difference between a crime and a caper is not knowing when to stop.

Thompson began to accrue a trove of trinkets, courtesy of his district credit card, according to court documents. There was sports memorabilia, subscriptions to various publications, the toys enjoyed by wealthy men: a flat screen TV, an XBox, a motorcycle, cowboy boots, even alcohol flasks.

Thompson -- a man with a $176,000 annual salary -- bled the district for seemingly the pettiest of pleasures. And through it all, nobody seemed to notice. Or asked for documentation or an explanation why Thompson was spending all this money.

Not until the district faced a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall in 2017 -- a blip he attributed to “human error.”

That’s when residents and the Shakopee Valley News got a whiff of something rotten and looked into his travel and credit card use. It became immediately apparent that many of these purchases were difficult to justify.

The FBI swooped in and spent 16 months combing through receipts and looking into the companies that did business with the district.

The truth came out like so many spiderlings from an innocent-looking egg sack. According to detectives, Thompson embezzled nearly $74,000. All on stuff so trite -- so unnecessary -- that even those who suspected something couldn’t really believe it. It was daylight robbery, right under the district’s nose.

Most capers end in epic chases, gunfire, heated confrontations between a lawbreaker and the truth. This one ended with Thompson quietly allowing himself to be handcuffed and folded into a squad car. For a while, that was the last thing anyone heard.

Time marched on. Thompson made himself scarce, getting a job at a Tractor Supply Co. in Moorhead, clerking for $13 an hour. This month, he pleaded guilty to 19 felonies -- theft by swindle, embezzling public funds, possessing stolen property -- in exchange for two years in federal prison. People have gotten much longer for selling weed.

The statement from the school district was as quietly Midwestern as lukewarm hotdish. It was “appreciative of the due diligence put forth by federal authorities.” The dirt they uncovered had been “challenging” for the district “and the community at large.”

It was also a major distraction, “taking focus away from the excellent work” of students.

There’s a certain degree of shame in the wake of being had, and had so spectacularly. There’s a desire to move on, to bury the cartoonish details in officious language. But capers, unlike crimes, are seldom forgotten. They live on in infamy, swelling in the retelling, in the wild speculation, of who knew what and when.

There are things we will probably never know -- chief among them why a man who had so much went to such lengths to steal so little.

Maybe we wouldn’t even believe it if we did.