A woman told a federal judge that she was following orders from coconspirators in her native Kenya when she helped dupe West Virginia's auditor out of nearly $1 million.
Angella Muthoni Chegge-Kraszeski pleaded guilty Monday in Charleston's U.S. District Court to a felony conspiracy charge, admitting to a role in what prosecutors believe was a multimillion-dollar, Internet-aided scam that also targeted at least three other states.
The scheme diverted money that was supposed to go to businesses that provided consulting and other services to public agencies, investigators allege.
Five Kenyan-born men, like Chegge-Kraszeski also living in the U.S., were indicted in the case last month. Married to a U.S. citizen in North Carolina, she faces a prison term and possible deportation at a May 11 sentencing. All six defendants remain jailed.
The slight, soft-spoken 33-year-old said her role in the plot began late last year, while she was visiting her teenage son in Kenya. A man she said she knew only as "Jimmy" had her photo taken for what turned out to be a false South African passport that gave her the alias "Christina Ann Clay."
With it, Chegge-Kraszeski said she set up dummy corporations in North Carolina and bank accounts both there and in Minnesota under names nearly identical to those of legitimate state government vendors. The conspirators then sought to trick public officials into sending payments for the legitimate companies' services to these bogus entities.
West Virginia's auditor was hit for nearly $2 million. Chegge-Kraszeski admitted to helping defraud the state out of nearly half that amount. The charges filed against the other five allege the scam also bilked $1.2 million from Massachusetts, $869,000 from Kansas and $301,000 from Ohio between March and July.
The other three states have reported recovering their funds. Chegge-Kraszeski said she wired most of her share of West Virginia's loss to bank accounts in Kenya. She said she also helped pass along $42,517 to defendant Albert E. Gunga and $27,550 to James Mwangi, mentioned in the November indictment but not charged.
Chegge-Kraszeski said defendant Michael M. Ochenge _ whom she only knew by his nickname "Mikie" _ accompanied her as she withdrew the money for those two men and then relayed it to them.
"I did not know specifically what I was asked to do, but I knew that it was not legal," Chegge-Kraszeski said of her various tasks.
She said her Kenya-based coconspirators e-mailed or shipped her occasional instructions, and sent her the passport as well as numerous pre-addressed letters for her to mail. While she withdrew the money in person, she said these as-yet-unidentified others monitored the bank accounts over the Internet and arranged online for West Virginia to transfer those funds.
She declined to explain to U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver Jr. what she had expected to gain from her role in the scheme. Her lawyer, U.S. Public Defender Mary Lou Newberger, said she would reveal that before the sentencing, "but it was not money."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Robinson said Chegge-Kraszeski has been cooperating with investigators, and was offered the plea deal in July. Copenhaver denied Newberger's request to release the woman, who was arrested in May. Robinson argued that the remaining defendants "have significant motive for her not to be present" for further proceedings in the case. She also cited the still-missing funds paid out by West Virginia's auditor.