Detroit Free Press wrote:
County funds lost in Nigerian scam
Treasurer accused of illegal transfer
January 18, 2007
BY DAWSON BELL
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
The longtime treasurer of Alcona County was accused Wednesday in an embezzlement scheme in which he may have served as both perpetrator and victim, sending up to $1.25 million in county funds and his own life savings to con artists after falling for one of the notorious online Nigerian banking frauds.
Thomas Katona, 56, of Harrisville was charged with nine felonies, including embezzlement and fraud, after a monthlong investigation by state authorities of numerous unauthorized wire transfers he allegedly made of county funds to overseas bank accounts.
The accounts were allegedly controlled by operators of a Nigerian advance fee fraud, law enforcement officials said.
Katona had been treasurer for Alcona County, along Lake Huron in the northern Lower Peninsula, for 13 years. He was relieved of his job in late November, after the alleged fraud was uncovered.
The county, with only about 11,000 residents, is the third least-populous in the Lower Peninsula. The county government has a total budget of only about $4 million.
Court documents said that in August and September, Katona made at least eight unauthorized wire transfers totaling $186,500. Earlier in the year, he sent at least $72,500 of his own money to the same accounts, the documents said.
County officials learned of the unauthorized transfers when Katona was in London, apparently to meet with some of his contacts, and bank records were faxed to county offices. Local bank officials had warned Katona earlier that they suspected he was dealing with Nigerian fraud artists, according to the documents.
A preliminary audit of county finances, which turned up an additional forged document, indicates a shortfall of $1,236,700. It was unclear how much of the missing money was invested in the scheme, officials said.
A spokesman for Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox said Wednesday evening that efforts are under way to track the money and the con artists behind the scheme -- variations of which have been on the Internet for a decade. Investigators doubt any of the money would be recovered, spokesman Matt Frendeway said.
Frendeway said details of the circumstances under which Katona was ensnared were not immediately available.
"Every part of this makes you wonder, 'What was he thinking?' " Frendeway said.
Katona was not represented by an attorney at his arraignment in 81st District Court and could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening. He is scheduled for a preliminary hearing Jan. 31. It was not clear whether he was in custody.
Carolyn Brummond, vice chair of the Alcona County Board of Commissioners, said Wednesday evening that she had no comment. Other officials could not be reached.
Cheryl Peterson, editor and publisher of the Alcona County Review, said Katona had been convicted of a misdemeanor while doing bookkeeping work for a private company several years ago.
"This is a tremendous blow to a small community where we trust our politicians," she said.
Contact DAWSON BELL at 313-222-6604 or mailto:email@example.com