Feds: Mountain State Justice office manager stole $1.5M from nonprofit

By KATE WHITE

Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — An office manager for the nonprofit legal aid organization Mountain State Justice is accused of defrauding her employer out of more than $1.5 million over the past 12 years.

Kim Cooper, of St. Albans, was charged by federal prosecutors on Tuesday with wire fraud and tax evasion. Prosecutors say she opened a secret bank account in Mountain State Justice’s name to cash checks written to the organization, often for attorney’s fees. Cooper used the money to pay credit card bills, rent and car payments, along with other personal expenses, the charges against her allege. She also allegedly paid the expenses of a family member with the money.

Mountain State Justice provides legal services for low-income West Virginians in civil lawsuits. According to court documents, Cooper began working at the nonprofit in the late 1990s, performing clerical work. Her responsibilities grew over time and, eventually, she became the office manager at the organization’s headquarters in Charleston.

A woman who answered the phone at the Charleston office on Tuesday said no one was available to comment on the allegations against Cooper. Cooper’s alleged scheme lasted until last March, according to Tuesday’s filing. Documents filed in federal court that were unsealed Tuesday show that Cooper was aware of a federal investigation as early as last April, which is when U.S. Magistrate Judge Dwane Tinsley directed that an attorney be appointed to represent “the targeted individual.”

Cooper opened a WesBanco account in the name of Mountain State Justice in 2004, according to prosecutors. She reportedly was the only employee aware of the account, which she had signature authority over and kept the checkbook for.

It was in early July 2004, prosecutors allege, that Cooper began stealing certain checks mailed or delivered to the nonprofit. Cooper allegedly would then deposit the checks, write a check to herself and to a close family member and deposit them into an account at City National Bank in her name.

“Cooper hid her criminal activity in many ways,” wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Wright.

Besides secretly opening and maintaining the WesBanco account, Cooper would omit the attorneys’ fees checks from Mountain State Justice’s cash log and hide all mail from WesBanco, according to prosecutors. She also allegedly sent false and fraudulent quarterly income statements via email to members of Mountain State Justice’s board of directors.

Cooper would disguise the true purpose of the checks by writing false information on the memo line of each check, prosecutors allege.

“Such false information included notations for ‘payroll,’ ‘conference/expenses,’ travel, or a bonus. The notations gave the false impression that Cooper’s close family member was actually employed by Mountain State Justice and thus hid the fact that the WesBanco account was not a legitimate business account, but merely a conduit for Cooper to use the monies for her own personal benefit,” prosecutors wrote.

Cooper also never paid income taxes on the money she is accused of taking from her employer.

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