Thief robs abused kids of $2 million

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Childhelp Inc.

She was supposed to be helping the most horribly victimized children in Knox County, kids who had already gone through some of the most traumatic abuse imaginable.

Instead, she stole from them — to the tune of $2 million.

Angelia Renae Brown, 49, is now looking at a three-year prison sentence and having to pay back both the money she stole from Childhelp Inc. as well as more than $600,000 in back taxes she owes the Internal Revenue Service, according to federal court records.

She waived her right to have a grand jury review her case and instead agreed to plead guilty in U.S. District Court to wire fraud and filing a false tax return. 

Brown couldn’t be reached for comment Monday. Her attorney, Scott Lanzon, didn’t return a phone call seeking comment that was left with his office staff.

Her victim, Childhelp Inc., is the Knoxville branch of a Phoenix, Az.-based nonprofit agency that works with children who have suffered physical or sexual abuse, said Executive Director Ken Bender of the Knoxville office. 

The agency — which works closely with the state Department of Children’s Services, law enforcement and the court system — also provides foster care services to 17 counties in East Tennessee.

“You can imagine how we feel regarding her stealing from our children,” Bender said Monday.

 Childhelp Inc. has an annual budget of approximately $2.3 million, which means that Brown’s thefts were large enough to have a painful and lasting impact on the agency, Bender explained.

“It affected our operations, obviously,” he explained. “Thankfully, we were still able to serve the children.  But it really affected us in that we couldn’t expand when we have 30 children on a wait list, and our staff hasn’t gotten a raise since then (when the thefts were discovered).”

Virtually no information about Brown or her background is contained in the records on file and publicly available in federal court. The records do, however, chronicle her misdeeds over the nine years she was responsible for keeping the agency’s books. 

Angelia Brown

According to the stipulation of facts contained in her plea agreement, she began stealing from her employer almost as soon as she was hired in April 2012 and didn’t stop until she was caught a year ago. 

“Beginning in or around April 2012, and continuing to on or about April 19, 2020, defendant wrote unauthorized checks payable to herself from Childhelp’s bank account,” her plea agreement says. “She then deposited those unauthorized checks (via mobile, in-person, or ATM deposits) in her personal bank account at Regions Bank.”

Each check required the signatures of two program directors, but Brown was able to get around that obstacle by simply forging their names. 

To keep the scheme rolling, Brown “would print Childhelp checks using company equipment, handwrite her name on the checks, and then use the mobile-deposit option at Regions Bank to deposit the unauthorized checks into her personal back account. Defendant also went to First Bank to obtain a book of Childhelp checks so that she could write additional unauthorized checks to herself that were drawn on Childhelp’s bank account,” records show. 

Source: Federal court records

“To conceal the fraudulent scheme, after each forged and fraudulent check was deposited into her personal account, and after Childhelp received monthly bank statements from First Bank, defendant altered  Childhelp’s bank statements to make it appear that the forged checks were paid to one of Childhelp’s regular contractors, customers, or marketing companies such as Children’s Hospital, WBIR Channel 10, WVLT, and others,” the plea agreement continues.

Brown wrote herself 885 checks totaling approximately $2 million during her nine years at the agency.

Childhelp executives eventually found out what she’d been doing and confronted her last year. Brown, who had risen to the position of senior staff accountant, admitted the thefts and was fired on June 12, 2020, records show.

Every time Brown pulled her check fraud scheme on her unsuspecting bosses she ended up committing the federal crime of wire fraud, according to court records.

Also, Brown lied on income tax returns by failing to disclose the stolen income, records state. For instance, in 2016 she and her husband (who hasn’t been accused of a crime) reported to the IRS that they made $70,684 and paid $7,674 in taxes. With the stolen money included, however, their actual income that year was $390,631 and the amount they ended up owing in unpaid back taxes was $96,647.

Breakdown of how much income Angelia Brown reported by year, how much she actually earned through fraud and how much she owes in back taxes. Source: Federal court records

When asked if she’d given any kind of a motive of explanation for her behavior, Bender replied that Brown left more or less immediately after her wrongdoing was discovered and hadn’t been in contact with the Childhelp since then.

“We’ve had to fill the gap left by those dollars,” Bender said. “But our national organization is helping us to fill those gaps.” 

In addition to serving a 36-month term in prison, Brown ultimately agreed to pay $2,616,464.99 in restitution as part of the plea agreement she reached with federal prosecutors. 

The plea agreement must be approved by a judge and by the Criminal Tax Division of the U.S. Department of Justice before it becomes final. No date had been set for Brown’s sentencing hearing as of late Monday.

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on April 27, 2021