The Dirty Dozen: 12 Notorious Credit Union Heists
Over the years, the credit union industry has witnessed notorious fraud and embezzlement cases involving CEOs and their family members, credit union members, rank-and-file employees, labor union chiefs, computer consultants, lawyers, real estate investors, government workers and entrepreneurs.
While there has been a lot of credit union fraud cases of varying degrees, this list focuses on what Credit Union Times believes to be the worst of the worst cases, which we name the Dirty Dozen. The individuals involved in these infamous heists –many of whom are still in prison – stole a total of more than $185 million over the past 25 years.
So why do they steal?
Christopher T. Marquet, CEO of Wellesley, Mass.-based Marquet International that investigates corporate fraud and embezzlement cases, said there are a lot of different motivating factors, but there is one that stands out.
“When you look at the major frauds of $1 million or over, people embezzle money not because of need,” said Marquet, who publishes a comprehensive annual fraud study on major U.S. embezzlement cases. “Instead, they have a sense of entitlement to maintain a lifestyle that is grander than what they could otherwise afford, and somehow they have convinced themselves that they deserve it.”
And while the embezzlers have concerns about getting caught, those worrisome thoughts fade away after they steal a few times, get away with it and convince themselves it’s easy to steal and they won’t get caught, Marquet said.
Here’s a look at some notorious cases in credit union history:
St. Paul Croatian Federal Credit Union – $70 million
St. Paul Croatian Federal Credit Union opened in a church utility closet during World War II to serve Cleveland close-knit community of Croatian immigrants. As the Croatian-American community grew over the years, so did its credit union to more than $240 million in assets.
But the Croatian-American community was plunged into shock and panic when the bad news spread that its credit union was abruptly shut down in April 2010 by the NCUA. A criminal probe by the FBI revealed that over seven years, the credit union’s CEO Anthony Raguz, who had been one of the most popular and most trusted persons in the Croatian-American community, made over 1,000 fraudulent loans totaling $70 million to borrowers who had no intention to repay the funds.
In Cleveland federal court, he admitted to accepting $1 million in bribes in exchange for approving the fraudulent loans. He also admitted to approving the loans without requiring collateral and knew the borrowers had few assets, no employments history and often used fictitious names.
The FBI called it one of the largest credit union failures ever investigated. However, Credit Union Times research found that the St. Paul Croatian FCU notorious scheme is believed to be the largest fraud case ever in credit union history.
But Raguz didn’t act alone. In all, the feds indicted 19 people, including one of the central figures who started the fraud in February 2003, Koljo Nikolovski, a Macedonian, who reportedly was a pistol-whipping gang leader.
Macedonian newspaper accounts described Nikolovski as one of two or three gang leaders vying for control of the drug, sex and weapons trade in the Macedonian capital city of Skopje. Of the $5.6 million in fraudulent loans Nikolovski received, $2 million was sent to bank accounts in Macedonia.
But Nikolovski won’t be heading back to his home country until he serves his 18-yeard federal prison sentence that started in May. Raguz pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing. Others involved also pled guilty and have been sentenced, while some are awaiting trials.
The bottom line is the St. Paul Croatian FCU failure cost the NCUSIF $170 million.
Barnstable Community Federal Credit Union –$45 million In the 1980s, Richard Mangone became a legend in New England credit union circles, successfully building the Digital Employees’ Federal Credit Union from scratch and making it one of the most innovative credit unions in the nation in just three years. He also co-founded Barnstable Community Credit Union.
Today, Mangone is known as Inmate 19201-038 at the Ray Brook federal medium security facility in upstate New York, serving a 24-year prison sentence, one of the longest prison terms ever for a convicted white collar criminal.
Mangone’s release date is Sept. 3, 2014, just a month shy of his 70th birthday.
Mangone shocked the credit union industry that once revered him in 1991 when he, and three others – James Smith, Robert Cohen and Ambrose Devaney – were arrested for what was described as the biggest real estate fraud case at a credit union.
They raided Barnstable CU accounts for seven years to speculate secretly in subdivisions and motels in Cape Cod, the South Shore and other properties throughout Maine and Rhode Island. To conceal their scheme, they formed more than a dozen nominee trusts to create the impression that the loans were going to many different borrowers, according to court records. They also hid illegal loans by using the names of friends and employees
Then the real estate market collapsed. Mangone, who was considered the mastermind of the scheme, and his partners were unable to sell or develop the properties. So they resorted to a pyramid scheme, creating new trusts that purported to buy subdivisions from the old trusts. The sham sales were in turn financed by new loans from the credit unions.
They ended up faking bigger and bigger loans, just to meet the interest payments on the fraudulent loans. The nefarious scheme finally imploded in 1991 when Barnstable CU was seized and closed by the NCUA. Mangone, Smith, Cohen and Devaney were indicted and convicted for bank fraud, money laundering and other offenses.
Three Credit Unions and Jiffy Lube Stores – $16 million
Samuel Pearson of Hanover, Pa., operated a company called Peanut Oil, which leased and managed a number of Jiffy Lube franchises and other businesses in the Keystone State and throughout the U.S.
But while the entrepreneur appeared to be legitimate, he allegedly conspired with a Texas real estate broker and investment consultant, Andrew Brosac, to defraud three credit unions and two banks out of $16 million in connection with the sale and leaseback of businesses.
In March 2011, the FBI caught up with Pearson charging him with bank fraud, making false loan applications and engaging in wire fraud involving financial institutions.
The feds charged Pearson with making fraudulent representations to investors about a Jiffy Lube store in Pennsylvania, for saying the business generated significant monthly rental income when in fact the property failed to generate even half of that income. What’s more, Pearson was three months behind in paying the rent on the Jiffy Lube oil change shop and others around the country.
Pearson made a deal with the feds and pled guilty to bank fraud and wire fraud. It turns out Pearson was working with Brosac in the sale and leaseback scheme from 2006 to 2008, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Pennsylvania.
It was Brosac who allegedly arranged funding from credit unions and banks to purchase businesses such as Jiffy Lube and other commercial properties and then used other companies controlled by him and Pearson to lease and operate the properties for investors.
The only problem is that Brosac provided credit unions, banks and investors with fraudulent financial information about the businesses, which induced the $16 million in loans, federal prosecutors allege.
The loans were obtained from Indiana First Savings Bank, Bank of the West, the $1.1 billion California Credit Union in Glendale, Calif., the $2 billion Travis Credit Union in Vacaville, Calif., and the $550 million Great Lakes Credit Union in North Chicago, Ill.
Brosac allegedly diverted funds from the sales of properties to cover lease payments and expenses and to buy new properties. He also allegedly received about $1.9 million in commissions and consulting fees from the sales of the properties, according to federal prosecutors.
In August, Brosac was indicted with 15 counts, including conspiracy, bank fraud, and wire fraud, and faces up to 14 years in prison, if convicted. Pearson is awaiting sentencing.
Municipal Credit Union— $15 million
This credit union heist is, well, particularly sad when you consider it involved 4,000 credit union members who siphoned $15 million from the $1.1 billion Municipal Credit Union’s ATM system during the mayhem, confusion and fear that followed the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York in 2001.
The credit union’s computer system, located in a building near where the Twin Towers once stood, suffered power outages and phone problems. But credit union officials decided not to shut down the ATM system because they were concerned it would cause even more hardship for members who were affected by the national tragedy.
The suspects, many of them New York City employees, plundered the credit union. The computer system glitches allowed them to use ATM cards to make withdrawals far bigger than their account balances, according to New York Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly. This plundering went on for weeks. Apparently, the word spread that it was a “free day at the races,” police said.
“People tried to profit from the confusion,” Kelly told the New York Daily News. “They made a calculated decision to take money that wasn’t theirs.” A Sept. 11, 2002 Credit Union Times article reported 4,000 credit union members overdrew their accounts by at least $100 and the 100 account holders with the most egregious overdrafts had been arrested or were being sought for arrest. Municipal said that it has recovered more than 50% of its $15 million loss from the overdrafts and never sought to file an insurance claim.
Broome County Teachers Federal Credit Union –$14 million
Laura Conarton worked as a loan administration manager at People’s National Bank for 10 years. What she learned in that job helped her and her son, Scott Lonzinski, scam and bankrupt the $52 million Broome County Teachers Federal Credit Union of Binghamton, N.Y., authorities allege.
Her knowledge of the policies at People’s National Bank enabled Cornarton to create fake certificate statements, signature cards and security agreements from PNB pledging the non-existent certificates as collateral for $14 million in loans.
According to the FBI, Lonzinski owned and operated a construction business where Cornarton worked as a manager and bookkeeper. The fraudulent loans were used to finance the business, purchase business vehicles. Lonzinski also used the loans to buy and remodel his home, buy a BMW coupe and SUV, a Ford Mustang, two GMC Sierra pickups, a Chevrolet Silverado pickup, a Peterbilt semi and two snowmobiles.
Of course, the buying spree and construction business came to an abrupt stop after NCUA discovered the fraud during an exam and placed the credit union under conservatorship. Its assets were purchased by the $3 billion Visions Federal Credit Union of Endicott, N.Y.
Lonzinski and Cornarton pled guilty in August and are scheduled for sentencing in December.
Visions FCU President/CEO Frank E. Berrish said Broome County Teachers FCU went under because it shirked its due diligence by structuring the member business loans as consumer loans.
Center Valley Federal Credit Union –$9 million
Bernie Metz was making around $60,000 a year at the now-defunct $17 million Center Valley Federal Credit Union in Wheeling, W. Va., yet she and her husband, Everett, were spending millions buying a restaurant and tavern, real estate, two Mercedes, and many other nice things for her, her husband and their children.
The good life for the Metz family, however, came to a dead end in January 2009 when a NCUA audit revealed nearly $9 million missing from the credit union. In February, NCUA liquidated the credit union. An investigation by the U.S. Attorney General’s Office uncovered Metz embezzled credit union funds by making unauthorized withdrawals from members accounts, wrote checks on the credit union account for personal expenses for herself and her family members, and made false entries showing withdrawals by members from their accounts.
This criminal activity was reportedly going on for at least four years. NCUA found the credit union’s internal controls were “non-existent.”
In 2010, Metz pleaded guilty in a plea deal in which prosecutors agreed not to charge her husband, Everett, and their two children.
Texas Department of Transportation Credit Union – $3.1 million
Joanna Lynn McGee, an officer at the now defunct Texas Department of Transportation Credit Union of Wichita Falls, Texas, spent seven years attempting to cover up a complex fraudulent scheme that led to her arrest and ultimately the liquidation of the credit union in 2008.
From 2001 to 2008, McGee created 129 fictitious loans and then used advances from these fraudulent loans to generate funds, which she later embezzled and also used to conceal here scheme, according to the FBI and the United State Attorney’s office of the Northern District of Texas.
As a result of those 129 bogus loans, McGee caused the unauthorized funding of approximately $3.1 million in loans, which led to the insolvency of the credit union.
Some fictitious loan proceeds were used to make payments on her credit cards. She also received loan proceeds by cashing fraudulent disbursement checks, which McGee had issued on those phony loans. Moreover, she transferred additional loan proceeds into her credit union account by causing numerous advances to be made on the bogus loans. And to keep the scheme going, she also regularly used loans advances on some of the fictitious loans to make payments on other fictitious loans.
Ultimately, however, auditors uncovered her crime and in April 2009, McGee was sentenced to 71 months in prison after admitting she embezzled more than $2 million, which benefitted her, as well as family members and other individuals.
Boeing Helicopters Credit Union – $2.54 million
Anthony Forte, former president of the United Aerospace Workers Local 1069, south of Philadelphia, maintained his innocence when he was indicted in 2008 with 154 counts for fraud and bribery.
But when he faced a U.S. District Judge, Forte pled guilty to helping run an illegal kickback scheme while serving as executive vice president of the Boeing Helicopters Credit Union.
Prosecutors charged Forte, his brother and six others for taking $105,000 in kickback fees on $2.54 million in credit union loans to unqualified applicants.
The $124 million Boeing Helicopter CU of Ridley Park, Pa. served Boeing employees or their immediate family members. But Forte, as vice president of the credit union, created a new membership category called the Select Employee Group, allowing nonemployees to receive loans.
Federal investigators said Forte simply told loan processors to disregard credit problems and other information that could jeopardize to unqualified applicants. Some loan applications listed fake relatives and inflated incomes.
Fortunately, the scam didn’t take down Boeing Helicopter CU, which continues to serve its 8,300 members.
N&W Poca Division Federal Credit Union – $2.4 million
Rebecca L. Poe and Pamela Mullins were employees of the N&W Poca Division Federal Credit Union in Bluefield, W. Va., where instead of helping the credit union make money, they were stealing from it for five years. They bilked $2.4 million from the credit union, which contributed to its collapse in 2008.
Poe and Mullins, who published reports said also are cousins, used various fraud schemes such as creating fictitious deposits in their accounts and accounts of family members, according to federal investigators of the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of W. Va.
The duo also took money through credit union loans and posted fake payments to the loan accounts. Moreover, they stole money by issuing official checks from the credit union and made them payable to themselves, family members and other third parties without keeping records in the CU’s books.
All of the stolen funds were used to pay for personal expenses of Poe’s and Mullins’ from 2003 to August 2008.
In July 2011, Poe was sentenced to four years and three months in prison. In September 2011, Mullins was sentenced to two years and six months in prison.
Borinquen Federal Credit Union – $2.3 million
When Ignacio Morales, former CEO of the failed $7 million Borinquen Federal Credit Union of Philadelphia, failed to appear in federal court on Aug. 28. 2012, to face charges that he embezzled $2.3 million from his own credit union, he had a good excuse: He was already in jail. He voluntarily surrendered to police on a bench warrant from a 2008 DUI charge and was placed in a Philadelphia prison after being found contempt of court.
His federal court date was rescheduled for Sept. 4 when he pleaded guilty to fraud, embezzlement, money laundering, filing false income tax returns and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. According to court documents, Morales participated in an IRS refund check scheme in which he cashed the fraudulent checks at Borinquen and retained 20% of the value in payments from 2006 to mid-2011.
Authorities said he withdrew $500,000 from the credit union to buy 145 kilograms of cocaine and received a share of the proceeds from the sale of the drugs. He also took $600,000 from the credit union to buy $1.2 million in real estate for personal use and stole $700,000 from a member’s account.
In July, the NCUA liquidated Borinquen and the $1.4 billion TruMark Financial Credit Union of Trevose, Pa. assumed what was left.
But as they say in show business, the plot thickens in this fraud case. Morales faces 10 years in prison at his Dec. 7 sentencing, but that time could be reduced in exchange for cooperating with investigators about a Borinquen FCU board member who may have been involved. The feds said his primary fraud scheme was cashing fake IRS refund checks, collecting 20% of the face value. Prosecutors said Morales was earning $50,000 a month in kickbacks from just one person who cashed nearly a dozen fake checks per week.
In a related scheme, prior to 2008, Morales created transactions that made it appear the fake IRS refund checks had been deposited into a board member’s account, and then promptly withdrawn, authorities said. Then, from about July 2009 through June 24, 2011, Morales allowed that same board member to withdraw money from accounts until they were overdrawn to the tune of $500,000, court documents stated. Morales “intentionally deleted evidence of the deficits” when providing documents to the NCUA examiners, prosecutors said.
Utah Credit Unions and Arizona Credit Union –$2 million
For two and half years, Zeldon Thomas Morris held a trusted, professional position as a computer systems consultant to install software upgrades on IT systems at four Utah credit unions.
But what the credit unions didn’t know is that Morris was also accessing passwords of accounts to make fictitious transactions that transferred nearly $2 million to accounts he controlled, and he used those funds to enjoy a lavish lifestyle.
Morris was given unrestricted local and remote access to the IT systems at the now-defunct $119 million Family First Federal Credit Union in Orem, Utah, the $154 million Alpine Credit Union of Orem, Utah, the $419 million Deseret First Credit Union of Salt Lake City, Utah and the $407 million First Credit Union of Chandler, Ariz. In his guilty plea, Morris said that it was his “specialized knowledge” of the IT system that enabled him to steal funds from August 2006 to March 2009 without detection, according to media reports.
He deposited the stolen funds in his personal accounts and into a joint account for a company he co-owned with a business partner. He used the funds to remodel his home, make mortgage payments on two houses, pay off car loans, credit card debt and take overseas vacations.
Morris admitted to stealing about $1.2 million from First Family, $82,000 from Alpine, $635,000 from Deseret and $93,000 from First Credit.
According to a media report, the thefts would have gone unnoticed for some time if it had not been for Morris’ business partner who notified Family First after noticing unusually large deposits made into the company’s joint account.
In April 2010, Morris was sentenced to five years in federal prison.
Mayes County Federal Credit Union –$1.6 million
Cynthia Jan Harris stole so much money from Mayes County Federal Credit Union of Pryor, Okla. over seven years that she apparently lost count how much cash she pilfered.
When she pleaded guilty to embezzlement in November 2008 before a U.S. District Judge in Tulsa, Okla., Harris said she didn’t know exactly how much money she stole, but it wasn’t more than the $1.6 million in the embezzlement charge , according to a newspaper report in the Tulsa World.
From June 2000 to July 2007, federal prosecutors said Harris, the credit union’s chief financial officer, made bogus deposits into existing accounts at the credit union and then would withdraw the money through checks. In June 2008 Mayes County FCU merged with the $139 million Red Crown Federal Credit Union of Tulsa.
In March 2009, Harris was sentenced to five years and three months in prison where she is probably counting the days to her final release.