Former Oregon Health Authority employee charged with embezzling $1.5 million under Covid program
An investigator’s affidavit obtained by the Oregon Capital Chronicle describes an elaborate scheme involving bank accounts opened in the names of unwitting state employees, bills for services never provided, and fabricated email traffic.
The Oregon Department of Justice announced Wednesday (April 20) that a former employee of the Oregon Health Authority has been charged with 21 counts in an embezzlement scheme. (Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)
An Oregon Health Authority employee who processed provider payment claims has been charged with embezzling nearly $1.5 million, state officials said Wednesday.
A Marion County grand jury indicted Marzieh Abedin of Portland on 21 counts, including theft, forgery, identity theft and computer crime – all felonies, according to a statement by Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum.
A state judge issued a warrant for her arrest. He said Abedin defrauded the state of federal Covid funding related to vaccination events. The Oregon Health Authority received millions of dollars in federal funding during the pandemic for testing and vaccinations.
Rosenblum said the state recovered all but about $6,800. Abedin coordinated payment approvals to vendors working on state immunization efforts who were to be paid with federal funds, the statement said.
“The DOJ investigation showed that she used her position to create fraudulent invoices for a fictitious company and would then generate fake approval process records to authorize payments to the fraudulent bank accounts she opened,” did he declare.
The program ran from last May to November 2021, according to documents.
The indictment accused him of stealing the identities of five people during that period to obtain at least $10,000 each time.
The victims included an official with the Oregon Health Authority’s health security unit, a former employee of the state’s public health laboratory and a supply officer with the state’s Department of Administrative Services.
DOCUMENT: State Department of Justice Affidavit
An affidavit from a Justice Department investigator that was filed in Marion County Circuit Court said the health authority reported the alleged fraud to the Justice Department in late November. The agency had asked an accounting firm, Deloitte Consulting, to help process the pandemic funds. Abedin’s job involved submitting and approving invoices from outside companies working with the health authority.
In November, Deloitte uncovered payments to a supplier, Leone Catering, for which documentation was missing, according to the affidavit. The invoices indicated that the company had provided catering services at vaccination events. But the dates were wrong, according to the affidavit. During a review, the health authority uncovered another suspected fraudulent payment — this time to a company called T-Bev in Eugene. The company sells plant extracts.
“During my investigation, I discovered that from at least May 2021, Abedin launched a complex scheme involving the use of several stolen identities, forgeries, several falsified documents, the creation of two false Internet domains , registering a bogus business and opening bank accounts in another person’s name to facilitate and conceal his embezzlement,” the affidavit reads.
The investigator obtained Abedin’s work laptop and mobile phone as well as other documents from financial institutions, email providers and web hosting services. Abedin stole Meredith Vandermeer’s identity, obtaining an Oregon driver’s license for her, according to the affidavit. Abedin used Vandermeer’s information to open bank accounts in Vandermeer’s name which also listed Abedin’s address.
“Vandermeer was unaware of any of these fraudulent activities until I contacted her,” the affidavit states.
Vandermeer’s LinkedIn profile indicates that she is a project director at the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research, but worked for Clark County as an epidemiologist during the program period.
Fake website and fake people
Abedin created a fake internet domain and email addresses that mimicked T-Bev’s website and stole the identity of the company’s CEO, Xincheng Gu, forging his signature on a W-9 document, according to the report. affidavit. She submitted forged documents to the Oregon Department of Administrative Services that led to the state money being deposited in Vandermeer’s bogus bank account.
Abedin also stole the identity of health authority employee Kaliska King, a procurement and contracting specialist, according to her LinkedIn profile, and she created a fictitious T-Bev employee, according to the affidavit. She used those names to send emails to the health authority as a supporting document in the program, according to the affidavit.
The affidavit states that the Department of Administrative Services noticed a discrepancy in T-Bev’s billing address and issued and mailed a check to the real company.
He deposited the check, according to the affidavit.
The document states that Abedin created another fictitious identity, Stefanie Piccante, to arrange direct deposit for fake Leone Catering invoices.
The affidavit says Abedin submitted 35 fraudulent invoices from Leone Catering for fake vaccine events and sham services to the health authority between July and September. To get approval for the payments, Abedin sent emails on behalf of Matthew Stephens of Deloitte, Akiko Saito of the health authority and another agency employee, Cheryl Balmer.
The health agency deposited nearly $1.5 million into the bank account set up in Vandermeer’s name, according to the affidavit. The state investigator recovered most of the money during the investigation, he said.
“Fortunately, this fraud was detected by the OHA and immediately referred to our criminal justice team,” Rosenblum said. “We were able to quickly track the money through different bank accounts and recover almost all of it. Whether this is a warning to anyone looking to personally benefit from a public health emergency – person, government employee or otherwise, is above the law.
The affidavit says the health authority fired Abedin but did not say when. The health authority informed the investigator that Abedin had told the agency that she had left the country to return to the one listed in her passport. He did not specify which country that was, but her LinkedIn and Facebook accounts indicate that she is from Iran.
This appears to be the first instance of embezzlement involving pandemic health authority funding. The Justice Department is also investigating a company called the Center for Covid Control, which is suspected of operating testing sites that did not provide valid results.
The health authority did not immediately respond to a request for details about Abedin. Her LinkedIn profile says she was hired by the health authority in February 2021 as a budget analyst. Previously, she was an equity analyst at the University of Oregon Foundation. She has also worked at the university’s College of Commerce and at the university’s Global Education Oregon. The first job listed on her profile says she was a financial analyst at an energy company in Iran.
Her profile says she has a Masters in Business Administration from the University of Oregon.
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