Dispute continues over amount embezzled from whaling commission

Casey Grove

A dispute over how much money a former Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission director embezzled continued Wednesday for a third day in federal court with no resolution in sight.

Maggie Ahmaogak, the commission's director from 1990 until her firing in 2007, pleaded guilty in May to two counts of theft and misapplication of funds from an organization receiving federal money and to one charge of money laundering.

Exactly how much money Ahmaogak, 62, funneled to herself remains in question as lawyers continue to argue about legitimate or illegitimate expenses. Ultimately, it's up to U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason to sort it out before she hands down Ahmaogak's sentence.

After many hours of analyzing copies of checks, credit card statements and other documents -- giving the ongoing sentencing hearing the feel of a tense, albeit tedious, trial -- lawyers on both sides have landed on two very different totals for the government's loss in the case. The prosecution puts the figure at more than $420,000. Ahmaogak's lawyer, Kevin Fitzgerald, told the judge the amount is closer to $91,000.

Fitzgerald, with his client testifying from the witness stand Wednesday, has tried to make the point that some of the money Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Steward says Ahmaogak stole actually went toward the commission's purpose. And while it was poorly documented, Fitzgerald said, the misapplication of funds did not benefit Ahmaogak directly in every instance. Steward has said that the means by which Ahmaogak pilfered the various commission accounts -- including approving her own bonuses, and a retroactive pay increase she needed to buy a Hummer SUV -- go far beyond bad bookkeeping.

Ahmaogak, wearing all black and glancing at Fitzgerald through large round glasses, gave short, mostly yes-or-no answers to his questions Wednesday morning. Some of the questions seemed to be aimed at casting doubt on the federal prosecutor's assertion that Ahmaogak spent the money on herself or her husband. Fitzgerald also raised questions about the whaling commission board's oversight of its finances and rules -- or lack thereof -- involving over the director's ability to spend money.

For example, Ahmaogak only admits to improperly using $10,000 of the commission's funds during a trip to an International Whaling Commission conference on the Caribbean island of Saint Kitts, not the $30,000 the government has claimed. The $20,000 in dispute went to Alaska commission board members in the form of envelopes filled with cash to pay for food, hotel expenses and, in the case of two of them, new clothes because their luggage was lost, Ahmaogak said.

They were there to report on the harvests of bowhead whales in Alaska, the "lifeblood" of the communities still allowed to hunt whale, and to renew quotas, which are governed by international law, Ahmaogak said.

"With those quotas, they're able to provide food for their villages," she said.

Ahmaogak admitted that taking $10,000 for herself was wrong.

But Steward, the prosecutor, wanted to know why there was no documentation of the rest of the $20,000 that disappeared, including what was given to board members, and why the board members interviewed later by an FBI agent didn't remember getting the envelopes of money.

"Are there any documents you can point to that substantiate any of this?" Steward asked, after reviewing transcripts of the interviews.

"No," Ahmaogak replied.

And, Steward asked, why was more cash needed for the hotel, as Ahmaogak claimed, even though the rooms had been paid for in advance? Ahmaogak, who earlier told the FBI it was because the cost of the rooms had increased, said Wednesday the cash was to cover incidental expenses. When pressed, shesaid there were no rules on spending the money, much of it donated from oil companies helping to fund the commission's activities.

"So it's OK to steal money as long as it comes from oil companies?" Steward asked.

Fitzgerald, Ahmaogak's lawyer, objected to the question. Judge Gleason agreed.

The sentencing continues Thursday.