Maxine Bernstein / Oregonlive.com (TNS)
A former international adoption agency accountant who stole more than $1.6 million from her employer and her own family was sentenced to four and a half years in federal prison on Wednesday.
U.S. District Judge Marco A. Hernandez said he believed the fraud lasted about eight years and involved multiple victims. He said he also considered the COVID-19 pandemic as a mitigating factor when determining his sentence.
Melodie Ann Eckland, 56, of Hillsboro, pleaded guilty to wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, filing a false tax return and willfully failing to collect or pay payroll taxes.
She was also ordered to pay more than $1.6 million in restitution.
The illegal scheme was uncovered in March 2018, when one of the owners of Journeys of the Heart adoption and surrogacy agency received a call from a Premier Community Bank representative requesting information on several company checks that had been presented for payment with a signature of the owner. which appeared to have been tampered with, prosecutors said.
Eckland stole funds directly from the adoption agency’s business account at the bank by using the Journeys of the Heart computer to make unauthorized wire transfers to his personal bank account in the United States and writing checks unauthorized to herself, according to prosecutors.
She also transferred unauthorized funds by computer as a “bonus” from the adoption agency’s bank account to her own bank account.
To hide his fraud, Eckland kept two separate QuickBooks files on the adoption agency’s computer.
To cover the money she had stolen, Eckland applied for loans from at least five loan agencies in the adoption agency’s name, using the agency owners’ names without their permission. Eckland altered the agency’s financial records to give the impression that she owned the agency and was authorized to enter into the loan agreements. As of 2016, Eckland stopped making the agency’s quarterly employment tax payments to the IRS and stopped filing employment tax returns. As a result, the agency owed more than $94,000 in overdue employment taxes.
In another cover-up attempt, she transferred $123,900 that she had stolen from an account belonging to her deceased brother-in-law’s estate to the adoption agency’s bank account by forging her husband’s signature , according to prosecutors.
Eckland, who worked as an accountant for the adoption agency from 2011 to April 2018, spent the money from his flights on gifts and living expenses for his adult children, trips to Hawaii, Mexico and Disney World, event tickets, groceries, household items and living expenses, prosecutors said.
As part of the plea agreement, Eckland admitted that the amount of loss she caused to the adoption agency, the owners of the agency, and the estate of her brother-in-law and IRS was over $1,565,000.
“The crimes committed by Melodie Eckland reveal an astonishing level of greed, deceit and callousness towards her victims. Eckland repeatedly victimized the adoption agency and its owners over seven long years, bleeding the organization nonprofit over $1 million,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Claire M. Fay wrote in a sentencing memo.
“The owners of the adoption agency are devastated by the accused’s embezzlement and identity theft. They have worked hard for 26 years to fulfill an important mission: to help children around the world find caring and loving families,” Fay wrote. “However, due to the theft, selfishness and greed of the defendant, the owners feel they can no longer continue financially with the adoption agency.”
Eckland, a mother of two and grandmother of three, began stealing from her employer because she was heavily in debt and felt pressured to provide for her children and grandchildren, the company’s lawyer said. defense Jamie Kilberg. She used the stolen money for household expenses, retail expenses, family support, debts, some travel and repayment of stolen funds, Kilberg said.
Kilberg argued for a maximum sentence of three years, noting that Eckland has no criminal record, is unlikely to commit future crimes, is remorseful and is working hard to repay her victims.
“In my quest to take the financial burdens of my family on my shoulders, I have wronged others,” Eckland wrote to the judge. “It’s just not okay and it’s not the person I want to be. … I want to right my wrong, and I don’t feel like I have the opportunity to do that if I’m incarcerated… I promise to work every day to become a more honest and trustworthy person.
Appearing via video for her remote sentencing hearing, she apologized to her former employers, saying she felt regret and shame for betraying their trust and stealing from them.
“I know better and I should have done better,” she said.