By Lukas I. Alpert
That’s some high-end embezzlement.
The U.S. chief executive of a German saw-blade manufacturer has pleaded guilty to stealing $15 million from the company to bankroll a luxury clothing and furniture boutique she ran on the side.
Donna Osowitt Steele, 52, of Taylorsville, N.C. had worked for Tigra USA since 1999, starting in the shipping department and rising to become chief executive. Prosecutors say that starting in 2013, Steele began pilfering from the HIckory-N.C.- based company’s coffers, eventually pocketing millions.
Writing company checks to herself and using company credit cards, Steele used $350,000 of the cash to launch a luxury clothing and furniture business called Opulence by Steele.
However, the guilty plea was not the first time Steele had been accused of embezzlement. In 1995, she pleaded guilty to stealing $500,000 over a six month period from a family-run sign company where she worked, according to the Hickory Daily Record. She served nearly a year in state prison and was ordered to pay the money back.
She also had earlier convictions for grand larceny and writing bad checks.
She also was accused of spending over $1 million on lavish trips, including $255,000 at the Plaza Hotel in New York and $155,000 at the Ritz Carlton Kapalua in Hawaii. She also spent $6,800 for a trip to see a Notre Dame-Virginia Tech football game.
Steele was charged with spending over $200,000 of the company’s money to pay for a relative’s wedding, and $100,000 on cut flowers plus another $100,000 on Gucci clothes and bags.
Prosecutors also charged Steele with spending over $500,000 on jewelry.
Steele pleaded guilty on Wednesday in federal court in North Carolina to wire fraud. She faces up to 20 years in prison. A message left with her attorney wasn’t immediately returned.
Covering her tracks
According to court documents, when credit-card companies flagged the purchases as suspicious, Steele would tell them they had been authorized.
Because of her lavish spending, the company began experiencing trouble paying vendors and covering its own payroll expenses. Company employees also started seeing charges being denied on their corporate credit cards,
To further cover her tracks, prosecutors said Steele told employees the parent company in Germany was having financial troubles. She also told them to limit communications with their counterparts in Germany and to hand over passwords to all the company’s systems to her.
Company officials in Germany eventually grew suspicious and began investigating, and discovered large discrepancies in the firm’s books. They then fired Steele and contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
“We are gratified that justice is being done,” said Bernd Motzer, a member of the family that owns Tigra who took over as president and CEO of its U.S. division after Steele was fired.