It’s high-end embezzlement.
The American chief executive of a German saw blade maker has pleaded guilty to stealing $15 million from the company to fund a luxury clothing and furniture store she ran on the side.
Donna Osowitt Steele, 52, of Taylorsville, North Carolina, had worked for Tigra USA since 1999, starting in the shipping department and rising to general manager. Prosecutors say that beginning in 2013, Steele began stealing from the coffers of the HIckory-NC-based company, eventually pocketing millions.
Writing company checks to herself and using company credit cards, Steele used $350,000 of the money to start a luxury clothing and furniture business called Opulence by Steele.
However, the guilty plea was not the first time Steele had been charged with embezzlement. In 1995, she pleaded guilty to stealing $500,000 over a six-month period from a family sign business where she worked, according to the Hickory Daily Record. She spent nearly a year in state prison and was ordered to repay the money.
She also had previous convictions for robbery and writing bad checks.
She was also accused of spending more than $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 on a trip to see a Notre Dame-Virginia Tech football game.
Steele was accused of spending more than $200,000 of company 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 more than $500,000 on jewelry.
Steele pleaded guilty Wednesday in North Carolina federal court to wire fraud. She faces up to 20 years in prison. A message left for his lawyer was not immediately returned.
cover his tracks
According to court documents, when credit card companies flagged purchases as suspicious, Steele told them they had been authorized.
Due to its lavish spending, the company began to struggle to pay suppliers and cover its own salary expenses. Company employees also started seeing charges declined on their company credit cards,
To further cover his tracks, prosecutors said Steele told employees the parent company in Germany was in financial trouble. She also told them to limit communications with their counterparts in Germany and to hand over the passwords to all of the company’s systems.
Company officials in Germany eventually became suspicious and began to investigate and discovered major discrepancies in the company’s books. They then fired Steele and contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
“We are thrilled that justice has been served,” said Bernd Motzer, a member of Tigra’s owning family who took over as president and CEO of its U.S. division after Steele’s firing.