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Former Eskimo Whaling Commission director faces 30 years in jail

Jill Burke
Creative Commons illustration

The criminal entanglements that last September dropped onto George Ahmoagak's mayoral campaign like an 11th hour bomb will leave his wife with three felony convictions. Maggie Ahmaogak has agreed to plead guilty to three of four counts against her in an embezzlement case brought by federal prosecutors last year, less than two weeks before the Oct. 4 election in which Ahmaogak hoped to return to the office he'd held years earlier.

In exchange for her pleas, prosecutors will drop a wire fraud charge and appear to have reduced the scope of the scheme for which she is being held accountable. They've also promised not to prosecute her or other family members in connection with her alleged embezzlement of nearly a half-million dollars in cash from federal programs intended to benefit her former employer, the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission. Ahmaogak served as its executive director for 17 years. Teresa Judkins, who replaced Ahmaogak as the AEWC's executive director until 2008, has also admitted to stealing from and defrauding the nonprofit.

In the 12-day countdown to the election following his wife's indictment, George Ahmaogak had to confront questions about his role in Maggie’s alleged spending sprees. Prosecutors claimed more than once that thousands of dollars were directed to Maggie’s personal accounts just prior to gambling outings with an unnamed “family member” in Las Vegas, New Orleans and Washington state.

In October, George Ahmaogak acknowledged that he had traveled and gambled with his wife on some of their trips together, but he declined to offer details, citing the pending case and the fact that he'd already answered questions from authorities. If he did gamble with Maggie, it was on their own time and with their own money, he said.

Ahmaogak, a former five-term mayor, lost by 62 votes in runoff to Charlotte Brower, who was sworn in Nov. 15.

The whaling commission is a nonprofit formed in 1976 to protect Inupiat and Yupik Eskimos' relationship to bowhead whales. It conducts whale research and promotes cultural and hunting traditions. Largely funded by federal sources, it pulled in $2.4 million from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) between 2004 and 2007, according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney's office in 2011.

The October indictment accused Maggie Ahmaogak of using nearly $475,000 in ill-gotten funds to pay herself unauthorized bonuses, take cash and payroll advances that were never repaid, write checks and wire money to herself from whaling commission accounts, including about $32,000 diverted just before or during gambling sprees. She also allegedly bought groceries, meals, airline tickets, paid utility and medical bills for herself and family members, bought snowmachines and made a down payment on a Hummer.

In a plea deal signed May 2, Ahmaogak admits taking $30,000 of AEWC money for personal use during a trip to St. Kitts in June 2006 to attend that year's International Whaling Commission meeting. She also admits that in June 2007, she again used at least $12,300 of the commission's money for a gambling trip in New Orleans, a side jaunt she had made while traveling on official business funded by NOAA, a federal agency that routinely provided grant money to AEWC.

The deal comes less than three weeks before Ahmaogak's May 21 trial was scheduled to begin. She faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count. Her defense attorney and prosecutors have not come to an agreement on what the final punishment should be.

Judkins has admitted taking more than $100,000 of money from the commission for personal use, funding pay advances, airline tickets, hotel stays, rental cars and payments for snowmachines for her and her family. She will plead guilty to two counts of theft, fraud and misappropriation from an organization receiving federal funds. As with Ahmaogak, Judkins faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count.

The women are scheduled to be sentenced next week.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com