Questions remain as feds wrap up Kenya fraud case By LAWRENCE MESSINA
Six Kenyan nationals quickly pleaded guilty to charges they helped an international crime ring scam government agencies in four states, but several loose ends remain.
The case focuses on an attempt to bilk a total of $3.3 million from Kansas, Massachusetts, Ohio and West Virginia between March and July 2009. It does not include another $1.07 million scammed from West Virginia at the same time by similar means.
Evidence also links the ring to a February 2009 attempt to divert $2.5 million from Utah. No charges have been filed publicly there, nor in a related but failed bid to defraud Florida officials that year.
The scheme’s apparent masterminds remain at large. Two have been mentioned in court, but only by nicknames: “Jimmy” and “Elvo.” They’re likely in Kenya.
One of the defendants, Angella Chegge-Kraszeski, is to be sentenced Tuesday. She faces possible prison time and eventual deportation. The other five received prison terms earlier this month ranging from time served to six years, and will face immigration proceedings as well.
Each admitted different roles in a scheme that sought to trick state officials into transferring to them payments owed to legitimate businesses.
Chegge-Kraszeski, for instance, registered corporations with names off by just a letter from actual government vendors such as Deloitte Consulting and Unisys Corp.
Tapping the internet for documents and online payment procedures, the conspirators then tried to dupe officials into rerouting vendor payments to bank accounts they set up for the dummy corporations.
Prosecutors allege the scheme initially reaped $3.3 million. All the money was recovered except $772,000 from West Virginia that was wired to Kenya.
Prosecutors have not commented on why the charges did not encompass the $1.07 million diverted from West Virginia that April. State officials have said it was meant for Sedgwick Claims Management Services. A dummy corporation with an almost identical name was set up in Georgia.
Chegge-Kraszeski, 34, registered her phony businesses in North Carolina, where she is married to a U.S. citizen. She helped set up the bank accounts there and in Minnesota, where the five co-defendants lived.
She was arrested in May 2009 after the ring tried and failed to trick Florida officials. The charges do not extend to that attempt. She was indicted later that month, and pleaded guilty to conspiracy in December. Her agreement with prosecutors, signed in July 2009, requires her to cooperate with them.
The other five were indicted in November, and all pleaded guilty by May. Four admitted to conspiring to launder the proceeds: Michael M. Ochenge, 33; Paramena J. Shikanda, 36; Albert E. Gunga, 31; and Collins A. Masese, 21.
The fifth, 36-year-old Robert M. “Robe” Otiso, admitted to a larger role. Testimony at their Aug. 19 sentencings revealed that investigators traced a $76,000 deposit in one of his bank account to the $2.5 million scammed from Utah in February 2009. Investigators recovered most of the funds.
The sentencing hearings also yielded evidence that the defendants relied on a personal contact at one of the banks they used to help them set up the wire transfers of West Virginia’s $772,000 to Kenya.
Federal prosecutors have dropped a charge in the case that seeks to recover those funds. Because the scam’s leaders are believed to be in Kenya, they have said they may instead file a civil lawsuit later.
After the sentencings, Masese’s father told The Associated Press that he believes Nigerians hatched the scheme. Thomas Masese, who lives in Minnesota, noted that the defendants come from different regional tribes.
If the masterminds were Kenyan, he said, they would have likely recruited only from within their own tribe.
The elder Masese also agrees with the defendants’ lawyers, who describe them as pawns in the scheme. He said their families have been unfairly harassed back in Kenya by others who wrongly believe they’ve received any funds from the scam.
Published on 06/09/2010 22:53:46