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Police say Michigan county got fleeced in Nigerian investment scam
Thomas Katona is shown in a booking photo provided by the Alcona County, Mich., Sheriff's department. As the elected treasurer of rural Alcona County for 13 years and a private accountant on the side, Katona wasn't exactly the stereotypical easy mark for con artists. But in a case that has investigators and local residents scratching their heads, Katona is charged with embezzlement and forgery after allegedly losing at least $186,500, and possibly more than $1.2 million, in county funds to phony Nigerian investments. - photo by Associated Press
HARRISVILLE, Mich. — As the elected treasurer of rural Alcona County for nearly 14 years and an accountant on the side, Thomas Katona did not exactly look like an easy mark for con artists.
    But in a case that has investigators and local residents scratching their heads, Katona is accused of embezzling a fortune from the county and losing it in a Nigerian investment scam. State police suspect he lost more than $1.2 million, though the charges thus far involve just $186,500.
    He also lost $72,500 of his own money, even after his bank warned he might be entangled in a swindle familiar to nearly anyone with an e-mail account, authorities say.
    ‘‘You have to wonder how he could get involved in such a thing,’’ said Sheriff Doug Ellinger, who along with other county department heads is waiting to learn how his budget will be affected.
    The money was taken not from the county’s $4 million operating budget, but from investment accounts totaling $7 million that were used as a rainy-day fund and for capital purchases such as new police cars.
    One likely casualty: a plan to install global positioning units in emergency vehicles to help find poorly marked houses. But it won’t be clear how big a hit the county will take until auditors finish reviewing the books in a few months, said Kevin Boyat, chairman of the board of commissioners.
    Some residents wonder why Katona, whom the voters kept electing even after he pleaded guilty to fraud in 1998, wasn’t more closely supervised. Thomas Weichel, the county prosecutor, acknowledged there was ‘‘kind of a void in accountability.’’
    ‘‘You can’t operate on a handshake any more, and that’s what it’s always been like here,’’ retired postal worker Al LaBrecque said at the Coffee Talk Cafe on a recent afternoon. ‘‘Our innocence is gone.’’
    Alcona County is hunting and farming country in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, about 200 miles north of Detroit. The county seat is Harrisville, a tourist village on Lake Huron with only 500 full-time residents, although the population booms during summer.
    Katona grew up on a cattle farm and was active in the community, coaching the high school track team.
    ‘‘It’s hard for people to believe that he would do something like this,’’ said Weichel, who has known Katona for about 30 years. Katona’s strongest supporters believe he was simply trying to raise money for the county, he said.
    But Weichel suggested another, more selfish motive: Katona ‘‘was making comments to lots of people before he was caught that his train was coming in and he was going to be retiring very soon.’’
    Katona, 56, is jailed on $1 million bail, awaiting trial on charges of embezzlement, attempted embezzlement and forgery. His lawyer, Dan White, would not comment.
    State police said that Katona wired $186,500 in county funds to banks in London, Taiwan and New York — eight transactions altogether — last August and September, and all of the transfers but one went to organizations linked to a Nigerian ‘‘advance fee’’ scheme. The other had an improper routing code and bounced back.
    Variations of the scam have been around for years. They begin with unsolicited letters — or, increasingly, e-mails — seeking help in transferring millions of dollars from Africa to overseas accounts.
    The recipients are typically offered a generous share of the money if they pay what they are told are upfront costs such as taxes, fees and bribes. People who take the bait can be strung along for months or years before realizing they have been duped.
    Katona was arrested and fired after bankers notified county officials about the wire transfers. Investigators are still trying to find out where most of the money went.
    In 1998, Katona pleaded guilty after falsifying documents for his accounting clients. Under a plea bargain, the charges were dismissed after he stayed out of trouble for a year. Yet he was re-elected in 2000 and again in 2004, the last time running unopposed.
    Boyat, the board chairman, said commissioners didn’t consider it their job to look over the shoulder of a fellow elected official.
    ‘‘We’re still catching some heat and being blamed,’’ he said. ‘‘We tell people, ‘You elected him, like you elected us.’’’
    The county is working with attorneys and auditors to sort out the mess and determine whether any lost money can be recouped.
    From now on, two signatures — including the board chairman’s — will be required to move county investment money around. The days of trusting one person are over.
    ‘‘In small communities up north, we know the people we elect to office — we go to church with them, raise money with them for good causes,’’ said Cheryl Peterson, editor of the weekly Alcona County Review. ‘‘When something like this happens, the ground comes out from underneath you.’’
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