Alaska whaling official charged with theft

The Anchorage Daily NewsSeptember 23, 2011 

For the second time in three months, an official with the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission faces federal charges of stealing and misspending from the organization.

In an indictment handed up this week by a federal grand jury, Maggie Ahmaogak, 61, of Barrow and Anchorage, is accused of using whaling commission funds on various personal expenses: plane tickets, groceries, meals, utility bills, and medical fees. She's also accused of using the funds to buy three snow machines and make a down payment on a Hummer. And, the indictment charges, she spent whaling commission money during gambling trips with a family member to New Orleans, Las Vegas and Washington state.

Ahmaogak ran the whaling commission from 1990 until her firing in April 2007, according to federal prosecutors. The four-count indictment filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Anchorage alleges that her misdeeds began in 2004 and continued until she was fired. Specifically, she's charged with wire fraud, money laundering and two counts of theft and misapplication of funds from an organization that receives federal grants.

In one instance, the indictment charges that she wired herself $12,300 and withdrew more than $4,000 in cash advances during a February 2007 gambling trip to New Orleans with an unnamed family member.

Her husband is George Ahmaogak Sr., a five-term North Slope Borough mayor who is seeking to regain the office in the upcoming Oct. 4 election.

In a written statement posted on his campaign website, George Ahmaogak called the charges "baseless."

"My wife has been cooperating with federal investigators for more than nine-months, and we cannot believe her cooperation has ended with a sudden indictment one week prior to the election. My wife will be entering a not-guilty plea," he said in the statement. He is continuing on with his campaign for borough mayor.

Reached by phone in Anchorage where the couple owns a home, George Ahmaogak declined to comment further. He said his wife wasn't able to come to the phone.

"She's a little shook up right now. I'm trying to calm her down," Ahmaogak said.

The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission is a private organization formed in the 1970s to protect Eskimo subsistence hunting of bowhead whales. Its staff is overseen by an 11-member board of commissioners made up of whaling captains from various villages.

Funding comes from the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as well as the North Slope Borough and the private Oak Foundation, said the current executive director, Johnny Aiken.

Between 2004 and April 2007, the whaling commission received federal grants from NOAA totaling $2.3 million, the charges say. The money came through congressional earmarks, said Andrea Steward, an assistant U.S. attorney, who with colleague Joe Bottini is prosecuting the case.

Federal prosecutors assert that Ahmaogak siphoned off one-fifth of that $2.3 million by using the whaling commission credit card, taking payroll advances that were never repaid, paying herself bonuses, writing checks to herself on the commission account and making a wire transfer to herself. She moved the commission operations to Anchorage and didn't provide adequate paperwork about her spending to the commission board, the indictment says.

Prosecutors learned of the commission's troubled finances sometime after Ahmaogak's successor, Teresa Judkins, was fired in 2008. The whaling commission sent a letter to the U.S. attorney's office raising concerns about possible misuse of funds, Steward said.

Judkins was indicted in June on charges of stealing more than $100,000 from the organization over two years.

As to the accusations regarding Ahmaogak and gambling trips, Steward said Thursday she couldn't name the family member who accompanied Ahmaogak.

At the time of the New Orleans trip, George Ahmaogak worked for the oil giant Shell as an Alaska operations coordinator. Shell has substantial operations in New Orleans. Ahmaogak began working for Shell in 2006 and resigned in March 2008 to pursue other interests, a company spokesman said.

The NOAA grants were designated for purposes such as research into whaling weapons that are more humane, a whale census, and travel to International Whaling Commission meetings where quotas for hunts are set, prosecutors said.

While the grants came with a requirement of regular audits, no audits were done between 2003 and 2007, the indictment says. NOAA officials didn't respond to questions about the lack of audits.

Aiken said when he arrived in April 2010, "the mess was already being cleaned up."

"This does not reflect who we are as an organization or as a community," Aiken said. Once wrongdoing was suspected, the commissioners brought in new staff and outside auditors and accountants to put things in order, Aiken said. Now, internal controls are in place, he said. For instance, three staff members are involved whenever a check is issued.

"We did that to make sure to make sure this kind of abuse can never happen again," Aiken said.

The commission has had to work hard to convince NOAA and other funding agencies not to cut the dollars off, he said. In federal budget years 2007 through 2010, NOAA grants to the whaling commission amounted to $723,000 to $733,000 per year, according to a NOAA spokeswoman, Julie Speegle.

The investigation was conducted by the IRS criminal division, the FBI and the Department of Commerce inspector general.

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