CHARLOTTE, N.C., NOV. 3, 2022 – Donna Osowitt Steele, 53, of Taylorsville, N.C., was sentenced today to eight years in prison for embezzling more than $15 million from her former employer, announced Dena J. King, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina, in a press release. U.S. District Judge Kenneth D. Bell also ordered Steele to serve three years under court supervision after she completes her prison term and to pay $17,189,748.26 in restitution. Steele previously pleaded guilty to wire fraud in connection with the scheme.
Michael C. Scherck, Acting Special Agent in Charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Charlotte Division, joins U.S. Attorney King in making today’s announcement.
According to court documents and today’s sentencing hearing, from 2013 to January 2020, Steele executed an extensive scheme to defraud her employer, identified in court documents as Victim Company A, a privately held U.S.-based subsidiary of a foreign company that manufactures carbide products.
According to corporation papers filed with the N.C. Secretary of State’s Office, Steele was earlier listed as Vice President of Tigra USA, Inc. The company was organized and based first in Ashe County and more recently, in Hickory. Tigra USA is a subsidiary of a European company that manufactures carbide products used in saw blades for the woodworking industry. The owners of Tigra USA and its parent company live overseas.
Steele began working for the company’s shipping department in 1999. Over the next 20 years, Steele was promoted 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.
Court records show that, while serving as Vice President and later as CEO, Steele used her positions to embezzle funds from Tigra in a number of ways, including through fraudulent company credit card purchases, company checks, Quickbooks transactions, and wire transfers. For example, Steele used company credit cards to pay for $6 million in personal expenditures, including to make high-end retail store purchases, to pay for a family wedding, and to make purchases related to Opulence by Steele, a luxury clothing and boutique company owned by the defendant. Steele also issued and caused to be issued to herself approximately 98 checks totaling more than $2.8 million from Tigra’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’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’s bank accounts to her personal bank account, which she then used for her personal benefit, including to fund a personal real estate closing.
According to court documents, over the course of the scheme, Steele embezzled more than $15 million from Tigra. As a result of Steele’s embezzlement, Tigra experienced several difficulties, including vendors withholding products from the company for non-payment or late payments, employees not being paid on time, and/or employees having their insurance cancelled without warning. Court records show that, in an effort to hide the fraudulent scheme, Steele limited communications and interactions between the employees and the owners of Tigra. Steele also convinced employees that company owners should be feared and lied to employees about the true nature of Tigra’s financial trouble.
On January 12, 2022, Steele pleaded guilty to wire fraud. She is currently released on bond and will be ordered to report the federal Bureau of Prisons upon designation of a federal facility.
In making today’s 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 prosecuted the case.
Previous embezzlement and misdemeanor convictions
Donna Osowitt Steele, under her maiden name, Donna Michelle Osowitt, was convicted of embezzlement in Forsyth County in 1995. The North Carolina Public Offender database indicates that Osowitt was convicted of embezzlement on August 1, 1995, in Forsyth County.
The Sept. 30, 1995, issue of The Winston-Salem Journal quoted then-Detective Dwayne Hedgecock of the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Department, who said that Donna Osowitt, as she was known then, started work as a secretary and bookkeeper at Ad Sign Corp. in Clemmons in October 1994. She waited two weeks before beginning to spend the company’s money on a swanky lifestyle. Her purchases included buying a new Ford Mustang convertible, a Chevrolet Blazer, jewelry, nice clothes, a jet ski, and a new home, according to a lady Osowitt befriended and then defrauded.
Osowitt also started her own interior design company, Design International, with Ad Sign Corp. money, the detective said.
The Journal indicated that R. Jack Perkins, owner of Ad Sign, had not checked Osowitt’s criminal history before hiring her. Osowitt had been charged with embezzling from a store at Hanes Mall in 1990. Osowitt pleaded guilty to misdemeanor larceny. She had 30 other charges, mainly for worthless checks. Osowitt was convited five times, the Journal reported in 1995. The other charges were dismissed. Osowitt also had records for writing worthless checks in Wilkes and Yadkin counties, the Journal reported.
During the Ad Sign trial, Osowitt’s mother, Polly Osowitt, said Donna stole from the family’s medical supply business in Ashe County. Her mother told the court that the family had spent thousands on psychological help for their daughter.
Osowitt pleaded guilty to embezzling $270,000 from Perkins, the WSJ continued.
Earlier, the Journal, in an August 2, 1995, article, detailed Osowitt’s sentencing. “Judge G.K. Butterfield of Forsyth Superior Court ordered her to pay $270,131 in restitution to Ad Sign.”
The North Carolina Offender information database lists Donna Michelle Osowitt, age 52, as having been convicted of three misdemeanor counts of Forgery, 16 misdemeanor counts of Worthless Check (including four counts of Worthless Check on Closed Account), one felony count of Fraud – Rental Vehicle (failure to return rental car), and one felony count of Embezzlement. The time served for these convictions, for offenses committed from 1993 through 1995 ended with her release from prison on June 28, 1996.