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Prison time for Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission embezzler

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Maggie Ahmaogak, former head of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, was sentenced to more than three years in prison and ordered to pay back more than $393,000 on Wednesday.

Ahmaogak, 62, pled guilty to theft, money laundering and misuse of funds in May. But the full amount Ahmaogak took from the non-profit wasn't established in the plea agreement. Over four days, attorneys on both sides sifted through hundreds of documents, trying determine how much money Ahmaogak stole in what amounted to a “mini trial” of the financial evidence. The government said Ahmaogak took $420,000. Her attorney, Kevin Fitzgerald, tried to prove it was closer to $91,000.

Fitzgerald argued that the disgrace Ahmaogak has suffered as a felon is enough punishment and that home confinement for a little more than a year, rather than jail, is fair.

U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason disagreed. She found the higher amount to be more appropriate, sentencing Ahmaogak to 41 months in prison and ordering her to pay back more that $393,000. Gleason noted in Ahmaogak’s sentencing that the defendant’s violation of trust and diversion of funds from the subsistence whaling community was a significant factor in determining the defendant’s sentence.   

Organization in crisis

Ahmaogak admitted to taking thousands of dollars over a period of three years through overtime paid twice, charging office rent to her Anchorage home and maintaining bad books.

Ahmaogak herself took the stand for two days, but the court found that Ahmaogak was not credible due to multiple inconsistencies in her testimony.

Prosecuting attorneys painted a picture of an organization in crisis, alleging that the Arctic Eskimo Whaling Commission:

• Was thousands of dollars behind on payroll taxes;

• Had been fined for not filing its non-profit tax status on time;

• Allowed the executive director to work thousands of miles from home, while her staff had limited supervision.

Ahmaogak insisted only certain elements of the organization struggled. Fitzgerald questioned Ahmaogak over her credentials. When she was hired as executive director in 1990, she admitted it was her first experience as an executive director. But the prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Steward, asked Ahmaogak to elaborate. Yes, she had never served as executive director before, but she had attended business school in California, taken two years of accounting at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and served as both a treasurer and comptroller previously.

Influenced borough mayor race?

Among the questionable items Ahmaogak purchased:

• A $3,000 refrigerator from Allen and Petersen's to replace her home refrigerator that she gave to the bingo hall to keep soda cold;

• Multiple snowmachines;

• A used $35,000 truck from her father; and

• A down payment on a Hummer.

George Ahmaogak, Maggie Ahmaogak's husband, was in the middle of a heated mayoral race in the North Slope Borough when, in September of 2011, less than two weeks before the election, the government announced his wife's indictment. The former five-term mayor was hoping for a sixth go at elected office, but he lost to candidate Charlotte Brower by 62 votes.

The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission is a nonprofit formed in 1976 to protect Iñupiat and Yup'ik Eskimos' relationship to bowhead whales. It conducts whale research and promotes cultural and hunting traditions. Federally funded for the most part, it pulled in $2.4 million from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration between 2004 and 2007, according to the U.S. Attorney's office.

The whaling commission issued a statement Wednesday night, saying the events surrounding the court proceedings were “sad and stressful.”

“We are glad it is finally over,” George Noongwook, the commission chairman, said in a press release. “Even though it has been a difficult time, we have learned from it and have rebuilt and strengthened our organization so that it is more effective for our people -- and so that nothing like this can ever happen to us again.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Andrea Steward as an Alaska state district attorney. Steward is an assistant U.S. Attorney for the Department of Justice. We regret the error.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com