Former ASESRO employee sentenced for stealing & forgery
Chief Justice Michael Kruse did not mince words when handing down sentencing for Fiapapalagi Letuli, a former government employee who forged and cashed checks belonging to another government employee — who was off island — to the tune of $7,000.
Kruse pointed out during sentencing the court has not forgotten Letuli was also implicated in similar conduct when she was working for ASPA, however the case did not proceed because the CFO at the time could not be located. He also noted Letuli has a civil litigation with the Development Bank of American Samoa (DBAS).
Letuli of Ili’ili, most recently worked for the American Samoa Economic Stimulus Development Recovery office (ASESRO), and it’s from this office she was initially charged with 16 criminal counts of forging government checks.
The 16 counts included eight counts of felony stealing and eight counts of forgery, which are all class C felonies punishable by up to seven years in jail, a fine of up to $5,000, a fine equal to the amount gained by said crime up to $20,000 or both fine and jail time.
However, in a plea deal with the government which was read in open court, Letuli pled guilty to one count of stealing and one count of forgery, while the remaining 14 counts were dismissed as part of the agreement.
During sentencing, the defendant pleaded with the court for leniency, noting she has an autistic son who needs her all the time and asked forgiveness from the court, the government and her family, husband and children. “I was entrusted by ASG to handle finances but I failed.”
Letuli further noted this has taught her a lesson and will not happen again. She pointed out that this has brought shame and hardship to her family, husband and children as well as her in-laws.
Her husband also took the stand informing the court that their 11-year-old autistic son grew up in his mother’s arms and she was the sole caretaker of this particular son. He further stated their son was only apart from his mother when she was first arrested in this case, yet all his life, he’s always been with her.
Kruse pointed out to the defense counsel to be mindful that his client had not immediately entered a guilty plea, and it was not until it was close to the time slated for her Jury Trial that she took up the plea offer.
Matailupevao Leupolu, who represents the defendant, noted Letuli takes full responsibility for her actions. He pointed out Letuli has medical needs and she was informed by her physician that she’s to seek medical help off island due to her heart problems.
The court heard the defendant had paid $3,000 to the woman whose check she cashed, however the Chief Justice noted she’s not the victim. The woman who had traveled off island on an extended medical leave was not entitled to a paycheck.
Kruse further pointed out if Galea’i had not caught this, it would have not stopped.
The Chief Justice then sentenced the defendant to seven years in jail, however the execution of sentence is suspended and she’s placed on probation for a period of seven years under the condition she serve 28 months in jail.
Letuli was also ordered to pay restitution to the government in the amount of $7,860.65 and will not be credited for the amount paid to the woman whose check she cashed. Kruse told the lawyer and his client that they are to go after the $3,000 already paid.
He said probation terms can be “for better or for worse” for the defendant given that she needs to come up with a meaningful restitution plan.
“We simply will not sweep this under the rug,” said the Chief Justice.
According to the government, the case was launched at the request of ASESRO Director Pat Galea’i and on Feb. 15, 2012 the Attorney General’s office was assigned to investigate allegations the defendant had forged and cashed ASG payroll checks made out to another ASESRO employee — Gale Clarke, who was on leave.
Court filings say Galea’i told the investigator Clarke had been on leave without pay from January 2011 to July 2011 for medical issues, however ASG payroll checks for the same period were still being generated in her name and cashed. Court filings state the Director confronted the defendant, given that she’s the one responsible for how the payroll checks for Clarke were issued.
The investigator also spoke to Letuli, who admitted she had prepared the paperwork in order to get ASG payroll checks run in the name of Clarke. “Defendant admitted she stole the money in order to pay loans, to meet church obligations, to meet family obligations and many other reasons,” say court fillings.
The similar conduct the Chief Justice is referring to happened in 2006, when Letuli was Acting Human Resources Manager of ASPA. At the time, she was charged with three counts of embezzlement stemming from three separate checks she allegedly wrote to herself totaling US$4,500. At the time, she allegedly had access to the stamps used to ‘sign’ ASPA checks. The ASPA checks were drawn on an ASPA Employee Supplemental Income Plan, which the semi-autonomous agency had set up to help employees with medical problems.
Samoa News understands the case was dropped when the ASPA CFO at the time was off-island when it came time to testify against Letuli.