A Manila woman is heading to federal prison next week after pleading guilty to bank fraud committed while working as a tax manager for the Wiyot tribe.
Brandy Cogburn, 44, was sentenced to 21 months in prison, plus three years of probation, and ordered to repay the tribe $95,001. According to court documents, she executed a multi-pronged embezzlement scheme over a period of approximately five months in 2013 by overpaying herself, cashing in unearned vacation hours and using checks issued by the tribe and a debit card for personal use. She was ordered to surrender on Tuesday February 1 to begin serving her sentence.
Hired by the Wiyot Tribe in 2012, Cogburn’s employment there ended in 2015, shortly after the Wiyot Tribal Council launched an internal investigation into the tribe’s own tax department.
“The main problem was the failure of the audits,” said Wiyot Tribe administrator Michelle Vassel. Outpost in an email. “During that time, it was difficult to pinpoint exactly what was going on. Brandy was good at shifting blame and creating an adversarial environment that made it difficult to see the bigger picture.
She was put on leave and resigned via text message shortly after, according to court documents. After its internal investigation, the tribe eventually referred the matter to the United States Office of Inspector General, whose own investigation would take four years, according to Vassel.
In the meantime, Cogburn has been hired as the North Coast Co-op’s financial controller. During his tenure there, the co-op was in a state of upheaval, mired in internal wrangling and on the verge of bankruptcy due to various internal and external factors. A few employees tried to speak out about “financial malfeasance” they had observed, including improper accounting practices and a lack of transparency, but management stood by Cogburn — for a while, anyway.
The North Coast Co-op ended up firing Cogburn in late 2018 for “incompetence” and later sued her in Small Claims Court. The case accused her of embezzlement and theft, saying she racked up $1,366 in unauthorized personal charges on the company credit card, wrote the co-op a check that bounced and s got away with a company-issued laptop.
the Outpost published a few articles at the end of 2018 on the internal conflicts and financial problems of the cooperative. The then chief executive and chairman of the board said they investigated the allegations of embezzlement, with the help of the co-op’s auditor and legal adviser, and found no evidence supporting.
However, the case files on file at the county courthouse include copies of letters that co-op managers and a hired attorney sent to Cogburn in the summer and fall of 2018. The letters demanded the return of the company laptop and threatened legal action if she did not reimburse the co-op for its fraudulent credit card charges.
Calls and emails to current North Coast Co-op board and management this week have not been returned.
As for Cogburn’s Wiyot-related shenanigans, the chickens went home to roost, so to speak, on March 12, 2019, when a grand jury in the Northern California Division of the U.S. District Court indicted Cogburn on six counts of bank fraud.
According to the indictment, Cogburn wrote a series of unauthorized checks in the tribe’s name and deposited them into a Redwood Capital Bank account that she controlled. She also used a debit card to withdraw funds from a tribal-owned checking account, falsely telling traders she had tribal authorization, and she manipulated the payroll system to give herself an unauthorized raise. , issuing themselves double paychecks, accumulating unearned vacation hours and taking excessive vacation bonuses.
In interviews with federal authorities, Cogburn’s former colleagues describe her as an often aggressive and confrontational rodeo enthusiast. They say she struggled with basic bookkeeping tasks and often failed or refused to hand over documents they requested. When she turned them over, they were often riddled with errors or filled with suspicious, seemingly random numbers. She had spent a decade working at Mid-City Motor World before joining the Tribe, and in 2012, shortly after being hired, earned a degree in accounting and finance from Humboldt State University.
Cogburn used tribal accounts to buy “lots of horse gear”, “cowboy stuff” and “farm stuff” like cattle feed, according to employees interviewed by federal investigators. The tribe’s environmental director, Stephen Kullman, found the purchases suspicious since the tribe owned no horses or cattle.
Cogburn’s case was assigned to Senior District Court Judge William Alsup and began to go through the legal process. Cogburn initially pleaded not guilty, but after a series of preliminary hearings and status conferences throughout 2019, a change of plea hearing was scheduled for early 2020. After a series of delays – some related to the COVID-19 pandemic – Cogburn, through his attorney, filed an application in October 2020 to change his guilty plea.
Prior to sentencing, Cogburn’s designated attorney, San Rafael-based Karen McConville, submitted a quibbling memorandum to the court with some of the dollar figures involved in her client’s fraud and asking the judge for leniency. The US government, as plaintiff, had recommended a 21-month prison sentence, but McConville said Cogburn should instead receive six months house arrest followed by five years probation and 500 hours of community service .
“Needless to say, the power and authority vested in Mrs. Cogburn directs [sic] that she abuses it for herself and for that she is guilty of criminal misconduct,” the lawyer wrote, but she argued that her client was not entirely responsible. “She inherited a failing tax system in [the] upgrade process and [was] abandoned by its predecessors. She didn’t have the experience or ability to do the job she was hired for and should have quit when it became clear to her, but she needed the job, and the tribe was glad she took the job. requests from which they benefited. personally too.
Cogburn is repentant, McConville told the court.
“She is not inclined to repeat the mistakes of her past, including those of the North Coast Co-Op, a position she held after leaving the tribe,” McConville explained. “Ms. Cogburn atones for her past misconduct by giving back to her community through “Horses That Settle,” which she also opened in 2018. This program allows children and adults to be with animals on her property for free. She also has a suicide prevention program.
In response to this appeal for clemency, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kristina Green submitted her own memo, saying Cogburn deserved nothing like this. Not only did she commit premeditated and complex fraud, Green argued, but she also submitted a fabricated letter of support in one of her previous sentencing memos.
Cogburn had given the court an undated letter signed only by “a tribal member, employee and friend” who claimed to have worked with Cogburn from 2012 to 2015. Cogburn said the author was reluctant to reveal his identity for fear of reprisal .
Asked about the authenticity of the letter, Cogburn initially said it was written by Fawn Lopez, an administrative assistant for the tribe. However, Lopez later testified that she was not the author. On further questioning, Cogburn claimed that the letter was actually written by a man named John Richardson, who, it turned out, lived in Reno and had never been a member or employee of the Wiyot tribe.
Prosecutors called Cogburn’s claims about the letter “preposterous” and “preposterous.” Since the letter was clearly false, they argued, Cogburn should be subject to a “two-tiered enhancement” to federal sentencing guidelines.
As for the argument that Cogburn inherited “a broken financial system” and was not the only one to benefit from his corruption, federal prosecutors were unswayed.
“The fact that Cogburn shirks responsibility and points the finger at others misses a key point, which is that she was the tax manager“, said Green [emphasis in the original].
As CFO, it was her duty to lead by example and ensure finances were handled appropriately. She not only failed in these responsibilities, but used her role to steal and now tries to blame her fraudulent behavior on other circumstances.
The manner in which the defendant executed his fraud, far from demonstrating his financial inexperience, reflects his criminal sophistication. She used every means available to divert. She used the tribe’s debit card to pay for personal items. she called Citibank to pay her personal credit card expenses using the tribe’s account information; she manipulated the payroll system to increase her salary payments without authorization; and she took unauthorized leave withdrawals.
Judge Alsup sided with the prosecution, sentencing Cogburn to the full 21-month sentence they had sought.
Vassel, the Wiyot tribal administrator, said the U.S. Attorney’s Office told her that Cogburn received a severe sentence “due to the sophisticated nature of the criminal activity.”
Vassel thinks it’s appropriate because the impact on the tribe has also been severe. As a small, non-gaming tribe with no economic development of its own, the Wiyot Tribe relies heavily on grants, Vassel said, and Cogburn’s actions have made it more difficult for the tribe to compete.
“[T]The amount of his embezzlement is a far cry from the cost of the ordeal to the tribe,” Vassel said. “There were additional costs such as penalties and interest on social charges and accounting cleaning which required a team of forensic accountants and specialized contract accountants. [to fix].”
The tribe had to pay twice for financial audits for several years because Cogburn’s submissions were incomplete and non-compliant. The tribe took well over 21 months to recover from Cogburn’s misdeeds, and Vassel said the damage wasn’t just financial.
“His actions caused real harm to the Wiyot community and the tribe continues to recover,” she said. “You can’t put a dollar amount on loss of public trust, hurt feelings, staff attrition or [the] the long-term costs of the divisions in the community it has created to conceal its activities.
the Outpost attempted to reach Cogburn for comment, leaving a voicemail on a phone number found in the Small Claims Court file. The message was not resent.