Ex-state fiscal officer pleads guilty to $1.2 million theft

July 13, 1994|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Sun Staff Writer

A former state fiscal officer pleaded guilty yesterday to stealing $1.2 million, part of which a state lawyer says was used to buy cars and pharmaceutical drugs that were shipped to Nigeria.

Speaking softly, Rufus O. Ukaegbu, 35, of the 4400 block of St. George's Ave. in Baltimore made his plea to four counts of theft before Judge Joseph McCurdy in Baltimore Circuit Court.

In May, Ukaegbu signed a plea agreement with federal prosecutors involving charges of laundering the stolen money and will enter his plea in federal court Friday.

Separate state and federal plea agreements call for him to serve 41 to 51 months in prison without parole. His state sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 11.

Ukaegbu was chief financial officer at the state's Water Quality Financing Administration, an agency of the the Maryland Department of the Environment that pays for projects to reduce water pollution.

"It's an example of pure and simple greed," said Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., who said the theft was the largest from a state agency since he was elected in 1986. "Mr. Ukaegbu had a good job and a good career. Why he wanted to risk all that for greed, I'll never know."

Mr. Curran said his office is working with federal authorities to try to recover the money.

Carolyn H. Hanneman, an assistant state attorney general, said the Internal Revenue Service -- believing it had tracked illegal drug money -- has seized $229,150 wired to a bank account in Atlanta. And Ukaegbu's defense lawyer, Jack Rubin, handed Ms. Hanneman a $100,000 check from his client's funds yesterday.

Ms. Hanneman would not say whether any more money had been recovered. "But I can tell you that we are actively pursuing and tracing the money," she said.

According to a statement of facts read in court, between Dec. 30, 1991, and June 15, 1992, Ukaegbu submitted four payment authorization forms in the names of companies that did not exist. The phony names were similar to those of companies that have contracts with the state.

The first transfer went to an Atlanta bank account in the name of Carl Belt Inc., which the court document says was set up by Steve Wowo, a friend of Ukaegbu who was named as a co-conspirator and was deported to Nigeria on an unrelated matter before the investigation.

The real Carl Belt Inc. is a water quality agency contractor in Cumberland that has no connection to the bank account.

Three checks were approved for Whiteford Contractors Co. and sent to a mailbox rented by a neighbor of Ukaegbu, Keith Westbrook of St. George's Ave., court papers say. Its name is similar to that of Whiteford Construction Co., which has a contract with the water quality agency but did not receive funds from the transfer.

Ms. Hanneman would not comment about the status of the case against Mr. Wowo and Mr. Westbrook, saying only that the investigation is continuing.

According to the statement of facts, Ukaegbu transferred $450,000 of the stolen money to an account at Maryland National Bank. Cashier's checks from the account, totaling $189,900, went to three luxury auto dealers to pay for cars that were shipped to Nigeria. Court papers say Ukaegbu also bought pharmaceutical supplies for resale in Nigeria. Stolen money also was used to remodel Ukaegbu's home, pay personal debts and finance an accounting firm.

Mr. Wowo is accused of using $219,000 of the money for securities investments.

Mr. Rubin said Ukaegbu has been willing since last September to come forward with the whole story. He acknowledged that Ukaegbu was involved in the theft but maintained that someone else masterminded the crime.

"The vast majority of moneys in this case did not go to him," he said.

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