Donna Osowitt Steele, 52, of Taylorsville, N.C., appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge David S. Cayer in Charlotte on Wednesday, January 12, 2022, and pleaded guilty to wire fraud, for embezzling more than $15 million from her former employer, announced Dena J. King, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina.
Robert R. Wells, Special Agent in Charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Charlotte Division, joins U.S. Attorney King in making this announcement.
According to filed plea documents and admissions made by Steele in court, from at least 2013 to January 2020, the defendant executed an extensive scheme to defraud her employer, identified in court documents as “Tigra USA,” a privately held U.S. based subsidiary of a foreign company that manufactures carbide products. The company is identified as Tigra USA, located in Hickory, on corporation filings with the N.C. Secretary of State office in the past decade.
The owners of Tigra USA and its parent company reside overseas. Court records show that Steele embezzled over $15 million from Tigra USA and used the money to support a business run by her and her family and to fund an extravagant lifestyle.
As Steele admitted in court on January 12, she was employed by Tigra USA from 1999 to January 2020. Initially, Steele worked in the shipping department and was promoted over the next 20 years to various positions within the company, including to the position of Chief Executive Officer (CEO), which she held until she was terminated in January 2020.
While serving as Vice President and later as CEO, Steele used her positions to embezzle funds from Tigra USA in a number of ways, including through fraudulent company credit card purchases, company checks, Quickbooks transactions, and wire transfers.
For example, filed court documents show that Steele used company credit cards to pay for $6 million in personal expenditures, including to make high-end retail store purchases, to pay for luxury hotel accommodations and event ticket purchases, to buy expensive jewelry, to pay for family weddings, and to make purchases related to Opulence by Steele, a luxury clothing and boutique company the defendant founded in 2013.
In addition to the credit card purchases, Steele admitted to issuing and causing to be issued to herself approximately 98 checks totaling more than $2.8 million from Tigra USA’s bank accounts, which Steele deposited into her personal bank account. Furthermore, Steele caused 127 fraudulent and unauthorized wire transfers to be executed as Quickbooks transactions, transferring more than $4.7 million from Tigra USA’s bank accounts to her personal bank account.
During the same time period, Steele executed at least 117 fraudulent and unauthorized bank wires, totaling more than $2.2 million, from Tigra USA’s bank accounts to the defendant’s personal bank account, which she then used for her personal benefit, including to fund a personal real estate closing.
According to filed documents, as a result of Steele’s embezzlement, Tigra USA experienced several difficulties, including vendors withholding products from the company for non-payment or late payments, customers complaining about being placed on credit holds, notwithstanding timely payments of their bills, employees having their company credit cards declined when they were trying to use them for legitimate business expenses, employees not being paid on time, and/or employees having their insurance cancelled without warning.
Steele admitted that, in an effort to hide the fraudulent scheme, she limited communications and interactions between the employees and owners for Tigra USA and monitored communications that did occur, she convinced employees that company owners should be feared, and lied to employees about the true nature of Tigra USA’s financial trouble.
Steele pleaded guilty to wire fraud embezzlement scheme, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Following the entry of her guilty plea, Steele was released on bond. A sentencing date has not been set.
In making this announcement, U.S. Attorney King thanked the FBI for their investigation of the case.
Assistant United States Attorney Maria Vento, of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charlotte, is prosecuting the case.