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Ex-whaling commission director gets prison time for embezzlement

Casey Grove
Bill Roth

Former Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission director Maggie Ahmaogak, who admitted to stealing from the nonprofit organization, was sentenced Wednesday to 41 months in prison and ordered to pay back more than $393,000.

Ahmaogak, 62, pleaded guilty in May to theft, money laundering and misusing money that belonged to the commission, which receives government funds and aims to protect the subsistence rights of Alaska Eskimos to harvest bowhead whales.

Prosecutors said Ahmaogak, the commission's executive director from 1990 until her firing in 2007, stole hundreds of thousands of dollars through a variety of methods for the benefit of herself and her family, including her husband, five-time North Slope Borough Mayor George Ahmaogak.

But the full amount Ahmaogak took was not outlined in the plea agreement and a final tally was put off until her sentencing hearing, which began earlier this month. In four tedious days of examining checks, credit card statements and other documents from a total of more than 100,000 pages collected by federal investigators, Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Steward showed that Ahmaogak used the commission's money to "line her own pockets," as Steward put it. Ahmaogak and her husband gambled the money away and bought things like a Hummer SUV, snowmachines and an expensive refrigerator, among other items.

Steward said Ahmaogak stole more than $420,000, some of it taxpayer dollars from government sources like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Ahmaogak's attorney, Kevin Fitzgerald, said thousands of dollars went to whaling commissioners and that some of the money paid for things that furthered the commission's purpose. The total loss to the commission was closer to $91,000, Fitzgerald said.

Steward said Ahmaogak pilfered the commission's accounts by writing checks to herself, approving her own bonuses and a retroactive pay raise, paying for meals and expensive personal items on the commission's credit card, making a wire transfer directly from a commission account to her own, and filling out time sheets with excessive overtime to which she was not entitled.

It was "straight up theft" from an organization that Ahmaogak turned into "her own private cash cow," even while the commission struggled financially in its last few years under Ahmaogak's leadership, Steward said.

"What is clear is that there is a pattern over the years that, when (she) wanted to make an expensive purchase, AEWC paid for it," Steward said. "The defendant had an explanation for just about everything, but they just didn't add up."

"These are not mistakes," Steward said. "These are lies."

Ahmaogak's attorney said the federal prosecutor had not proved that some alleged theft -- including an $8,000 bonus Ahmaogak approved for herself shortly after learning a finance company wanted that same amount for a Hummer she was buying -- was theft at all. There was nothing in commission bylaws that said she couldn't give herself a bonus, and other employees received bonuses, Fitzgerald said. As another example, Ahmaogak bought two snowmachines to replace two that hunters demolished while scouting for caribou that was to be eaten during a commission meeting, Fitzgerald said. The snowmachines were a legitimate commission expense, and the prosecutor had not proved otherwise, he said.

Specific discrepancies between expenses Ahmaogak claimed as legitimate in interviews with federal agents and court filings, which she later acknowledged were inappropriate or explained in other ways, could be chalked up to the complexity of the case, Fitzgerald said.

"The idea that there might be mistakes? Yeah, there were mistakes," he said. "This has been an extraordinarily complex case."

Finally, as the lengthy sentencing hearing neared its end, it was Ahmaogak's turn to make a statement to the judge.

"First of all, I'd like to say I'm sorry. I apologize for this incident," Ahmaogak said. "I've done a lot of work for my people, putting food on their tables and at the same time protecting their ability to harvest bowhead whales."

Ahmaogak said she had abused the trust of the people the commission serves and that she was saddened and embarrassed.

"I hope the organization is able to overcome any damage I have done," she said.

In handing down her sentence, Judge Gleason said she had not believed parts of Ahmaogak's previous testimony and did not think the former commission director had accepted responsibility for her actions.

Gleason denied Fitzgerald's request that Ahmaogak spend the 41-month sentence -- three years, five months -- under house arrest, and ordered her to report to prison. Ahmaogak must also pay $393,193.90 restitution to the commission and spend three years on probation after she is released, Gleason said.

"She was very trusted by those she worked for and those she worked with, but that is what led to this breakdown," Gleason said. "It's the violation of trust in this offense that I see as most troubling."

Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@adn.com or 257-4589.


By CASEY GROVE
casey.grove@adn.com