KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — A former employee of the Catholic Diocese of Kalamazoo is being federally prosecuted for allegedly stealing from people who came to her for immigration help.
Monica Karina Mazei (who also goes by Karina Puing) was indicted on a count of wire fraud, according to court documents filed Wednesday. She’s expected to be arraigned in federal court Friday.
Mazei used to work for the church’s Immigration Assistance Program, where it was her job to help people navigate the immigration system and collect the rates the diocese charges, which includes payment for government application fees.
An investigation by Homeland Security Investigations and the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety found that Mazei told more than 20 of her clients that she had filed their paperwork even though she didn’t. Instead, she pocketed their money — some $7,230 between May 2015 and March 2019, the court documents show.
Authorities say this is how she did it: She would ask her victims to leave the recipient space blank on a check. She would copy the check, write in a legitimate organization as the payee and give the copy back to the person as a receipt. Then she would write her own name on the original and deposit it in her own account.
The documents list several instances in which Mazei deposited money orders from clients into her accounts. That process meant the funds technically crossed state lines, and that’s what makes the case one of federal wire fraud.
She didn’t start official case files for the people she ripped off, the feds say, which kept her scheme from the diocese. She also lied to her victims when they asked why their applications hadn’t gone through.
In a Thursday statement, the Diocese of Kalamazoo said its officials caught wind of the fraud in March, told law enforcement and fired Mazei, who had worked for the diocese for 18 years. It says it started reaching out to possible victims and in April posted a public notice hoping to alert more of them.
Mazei worked out of an office in Hartford. When the accusations came to light in March, the diocese shut down its immigration aid in Hartford and those services remain canceled, a diocesan official said.
If convicted, Mazei, 47, could spend up to 20 years in a federal prison and have to pay a $250,000 fine. She would also have to pay restitution.
—24 Hour News 8’s Barton Deiters contributed to this report.
Full Thursday statement from the diocese:
“This past March when diocesan officials discovered evidence of potential fraudulent activity, we dismissed the employee and immediately alerted local law enforcement and began distributing notice of this to outlets that reach potential affected parties. Additionally, we alerted the public through our April 18th news release so we could heighten awareness to those individuals who may have been negatively impacted.
“We are grateful for the diligence of both the Kalamazoo Public Safety Department as well as Homeland Security.
“The Diocese of Kalamazoo has a long-standing commitment to assist immigrants seeking a legal pathway to citizenship through its Immigration Assistance Program. The Diocese stands ready to assist in finding just and equitable resolutions for the victims of fraud in this matter.
“We continue to urge anyone with information in regards to this matter to contact Homeland Security Investigations (313) 226-0500 and the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety (269) 488-8911.”