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Carlsbad woman charged in Otis embezzlement scheme pleads not guilty

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A Carlsbad woman pleaded not guilty Friday to wire fraud charges arising from an $800,000 embezzlement scheme.

Acting U.S. Attorney James D. Tierney, Special Agent in Charge Terry Wade of the Albuquerque Division of the FBI, and Eddy County Sheriff Mark Cage announced the arraignment of Lori V. Whitaker, 54, of Carlsbad, on wire fraud charges at the federal courthouse in Las Cruces.

Whitaker was arraigned on a 75-count indictment charging her with perpetrating a scheme to defraud her former employer, the Otis Mutual Domestic Water Consumers and Sewage Works Association, out of approximately $800,000 over a two-year period. Whitaker is accused of fraudulently transmitting funds by means of wire communications between March 27, 2015, and Feb. 3, 2017, as part of a scheme to defraud the Association.

The funds involved in the 75 transactions range from $416 to $15,746.64. During Friday’s hearing, Whitaker entered a not guilty plea and was released pending trial, which has not been scheduled, under pretrial supervision and other conditions of release.

“This indictment reflects the Justice Department’s commitment to investigate and prosecute fraudulent conduct that adversely impacts the lives of innocent victims,” said Tierney.

“The scope of these charges shows the determination of the FBI to work with our partners to make sure justice is done,” said Wade. “I am proud of the FBI agents and staff who worked with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Eddy County Sheriff’s Office on this case.”

According to the indictment, Whitaker was employed by the Association, a nonprofit, special-purpose government association that provides potable water and a wastewater system to more than 4,300 people in Otis, as its office manager from 2003 through April 2017. Whitaker was responsible for controlling the Association’s finances, had access to its payroll account, and received a company credit card intended for use for Association-related expenses.

The indictment alleges that from March 2015 through February 2017, Whitaker embezzled approximately $800,000 of the Association’s funds for her personal use by both using its credit card account for personal purposes unrelated to Association business and paying off credit card balances through frequent, but unauthorized, online transfers from the Association’s payroll account.

The indictment alleges Whitaker repeatedly used the credit card to obtain cash advances and initiate other charges at casinos.

The indictment includes forfeiture provisions, which seek forfeiture to the United States of any property or proceeds derived from the crimes charged in the indictment. It also seeks the entry of a money judgment against Whitaker in the amount of $800,000.

If convicted, Whitaker faces a maximum statutory penalty of 20 years of imprisonment. This case was investigated by the FBI Office in Las Cruces with assistance from the Eddy County Sheriff’s Office.

“This indictment brings us another step closer to bringing closure to the people who rely on the Otis water co-op for potable water and irrigation,” said Cage. “The Eddy County Sheriff’s Office is grateful to the FBI for partnering with us and applying their resources and expertise to this complex case, and we look forward to continuing to work with the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office as the prosecution moves forward.”

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