An Oregon Health Authority employee who processed requests for vendor payments has been indicted for embezzling nearly $1.5 million, state officials said Wednesday.
A Marion County grand jury indicted Marzieh Abedin of Portland on 21 criminal counts, including theft, forgery, identity theft and computer crime – all felonies, according to a statement from Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum.
A state judge issued a warrant for her arrest. It said Abedin bilked the state of federal COVID funding related to vaccination events. The Oregon Health Authority received $500 million in federal funding during the pandemic for testing, vaccinations and other needs.
Rosenblum said the state recovered all but about $6,800. Abedin coordinated approvals of payments to vendors working on the state’s vaccination efforts and that was to be paid with federal funds, the statement said.
“DOJ’s investigation showed that she used her position to create fraudulent invoices for a sham company and would then generate fake records of the approval process to authorize payments to the fraudulent bank accounts she opened,” it said.
The scheme ran from last May to November 2021, documents said.
The indictment accused her of stealing the identity of five people through that period to obtain at least $10,000 in each instance.
The victims included a manager in the Oregon Health Authority’s health security unit, a one-time employee of the state Public Health Laboratory, and a procurement officer with the state Department of Administrative Services.
DOCUMENT: State Justice Department affidavit
An affidavit by a Justice Department investigator that was filed in Marion County Circuit Court said the health authority reported the suspected fraud to the Justice Department in late November. The agency had asked an accounting company, Deloitte Consulting, to help process pandemic funds. Abedin’s job involved submitting and approving invoices from outside companies working with the health authority.
In November, Deloitte discovered payments to a vendor, Leone Catering, that were missing documentation, the affidavit said. The invoices said the company had provided catering services at vaccination events. But the dates were wrong, the affidavit said. During a review, the health authority found another suspected fraudulent payment – this time to a company called T-Bev in Eugene. The company sells herbal extracts.
“During my investigation, I discovered that beginning at least in May 2021, Abedin initiated a complex scheme that involved the use of multiple stolen identities, forgeries, several falsified documents, the creation of two false internet domains, registration of a fake business and opening bank accounts in another person’s name to facilitate and conceal her embezzlement,” the affidavit said.
The investigator obtained Abedin’s work laptop and cell phone plus other records from financial institutions, email providers and web hosting services.
Abedin stole the identity of Meredith Vandermeer, obtaining an Oregon driver’s license for her, the affidavit said. Abedin used Vandermeer’s information to open bank accounts in Vandermeer’s name that also listed Abedin’s address.
“Vandermeer was unaware of any of this fraudulent activity until I contacted her,” the affidavit said.
Vandermeer’s LinkedIn profile said she’s a project director at Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research but worked for Clark County as an epidemiologist during the period of the scheme.
Fake website and fake people
Abedin created a fake internet domain and email addresses that mimicked the T-Bev website and stole the identity of the company’s CEO Xincheng Gu, forging his signature on a W-9 document, according to the affidavit. She submitted falsified documents to the Oregon Department of Administrative Services that led to state money being deposited in the fake Vandermeer bank account.
Abedin also stole the identity of a health authority employee, Kaliska King, a procurement and contract specialist, according to her LinkedIn profile, and she created a fictitious T-Bev employee, the affidavit said. She used those names to send emails to the health authority as supporting documentation in the scheme, the affidavit recounted
The affidavit said that the Department of Administrative Services noticed a discrepancy in the billing address for T-Bev and issued and sent a check to the real company.
It deposited the check, the affidavit said.
The document said that Abedin created another fictitious identity, Stefanie Piccante, to arrange a direct deposit for phony Leone Catering invoices.
The affidavit said Abedin submitted 35 fraudulent invoices from Leone Catering for fake vaccine events and fictitious services to the health authority between July and September. To gain approval for the payments, Abedin sent emails in the name 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 created in Vandermeer’s name, the affidavit said. The state’s investigator recovered most of the money during the investigation, it said.
“Fortunately this fraud was caught by OHA and immediately referred to our criminal justice team,” Rosenblum said. “We were able to quickly follow the money through various bank accounts and recover nearly all of it. Let this be a warning to anyone looking to personally benefit from a public health emergency – no one, state employee or otherwise, is above the law.”
The health authority said it is prepared to prevent another scheme of this type.
“OHA has steps in place to prevent the kind of fraudulent transfer of funds that is described in the indictment, and took additional steps that included putting in place oversight provisions for all of its awards; hiring contractors to assist with oversight; and cooperating with all audits to date, including a current audit by the Oregon Secretary of State,” the health authority said in a statement.
The health authority fired Abedin on Jan. 22, according to a statement. She was paid $7,107 a month.
Abedin said she had left the country to return to the one that issued her passport, the affidavit said. It did not say what that country was, but her LinkedIn and Facebook accounts indicate she is a native of Iran.
This appears to be the first case of embezzlement involving health authority pandemic funding. The Justice Department is also investigating a company called the Center for COVID Control which is suspected of operating testing sites which did not provide valid results.
Abedin was hired by the health authority in March 2021 as a program analyst. Before that she was an equity analyst at the University of Oregon Foundation. She also worked at the university’s college of business and the Global Education Oregon at the university. 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 of business administration from the University of Oregon.
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