Court tries to tally money stolen from whaling commission

Casey Grove

Federal prosecutors said a former director of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, who pleaded guilty in May to stealing commission funds, spent some of the more than $420,000 she embezzled on her and her husband's gambling.

Lawyers are still negotiating about how much money Maggie Ahmaogak, the commission's executive director from 1990 to 2007, directed to herself for gambling and personal items, including snowmachines, an expensive refrigerator and a luxury Hummer SUV. During an unusually complicated sentencing hearing Wednesday, which seemed much like a day of trial, a federal prosecutor and Ahmaogak's attorney argued about where the money came from and where it went.

Ahmaogak, 62, wrote commission checks -- dozens of them, marked with the picture of a bowhead whale and projected on a courtroom screen -- to herself and approved a retroactive raise and a bonus for herself, among other wrongdoing, said assistant U.S. attorney Andrea Steward.

Ahmaogak also made fraudulent charges on the commission's credit card and billed the commission for using her home office in Anchorage, Steward said. Hiring inexperienced office staff, having them based in Barrow, and muddying the commission's accounting made the theft possible, the prosecutor said.

"It isn't just bad bookkeeping here," Steward told a judge Wednesday. "The bad bookkeeping allowed the defendant to give money to herself and her family members and, in some cases, to commissioners."

Large chunks of money were intended to repay whaling commissioners for trips to conferences and were not part of Ahmaogak "lining her own pockets," said her attorney, Kevin Fitzgerald. The complicated overlap of funding sources and poor accounting makes the case particularly difficult, Fitzgerald said. Ahmaogak did not directly benefit from all of the transactions the federal prosecutors list as "loss" to the commission, he said.

"Some of the money is money that was consistent with (the commission's) purpose but not technically approved by a particular grant," Fitzgerald said.

But Ahmaogak and her husband, former North Slope Borough Mayor George Ahmaogak, spent thousands of dollars gambling at casinos in the Caribbean, New Orleans and Las Vegas, according to Internal Revenue Service Special Agent Clinton Wight, who testified Wednesday.

Maggie Ahmaogak made cash withdrawals with the commission's credit card and received fraudulent reimbursements for hotel rooms or plane tickets during or just after the trips, which were paid for by the commission or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Wight said.

In one instance, Ahmaogak filled out a time sheet indicating she worked more hours during a two-week period than there are in two weeks, Wight said.

"So, even if the defendant worked 24 hours a day, didn't stop to sleep or eat, it would be impossible to work this much?" Steward, the prosecutor, asked Wight.

"Yes, based on what's on the (pay) check," Wight said.

Fitzgerald said Ahmaogak admits to some wrongdoing -- she's already pleaded guilty to two counts of theft and misapplication of funds from an organization receiving federal money and one charge of money laundering -- but the figure federal prosecutors say she stole is too high.

Fitzgerald said he and Ahmaogak are still working out the details of what she took, an amount she could be ordered to repay.

"This is extraordinarily factually complex, and it has to do with the overlay, the interplay, of various accounts," Fitzgerald said.

The sentencing hearing is set to continue next week.