GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A former employee of the Catholic Diocese of Kalamazoo will serve time in prison for stealing money from people who came to her for immigration help.
Monica Karina Mazei (also known as Karina Puig) was sentenced to 33 months in prison for wire fraud, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. She was also ordered to pay $58,998 to replace the money she had stolen.
Mazei was an employee of the Diocese’s immigration assistance program for 18 years where she helped clients apply for visas, work permits, permanent resident status, citizenship and other relief.
She admitted that between 2015 and 2019, she collected money from several clients, promising them that she would process their petitions. Instead, she stole the money and didn’t send the paperwork.
Mazei pleaded guilty to the charges in October 2019.
Authorities say she was able to hide the embezzlement from the Diocese by not starting the files for the clients she stole money from.
They say Mazei was able to commit the crimes by asking for blank checks or money orders. She then would write “U.S. Department of Homeland Security” in the payee line of checks that she provided to clients as proof. On the actual payment, she would write her own name and deposit the funds into her own account. In other cases, she kept money for herself when people paid cash.
The Department of Justice says Mazei was an immigrant herself and became a naturalized citizen in 1999.
“Mazei was given an opportunity to live the American dream,” said U.S. Attorney Andrew Birge, “but she cashed in on the dreams of other to line her own pockets.”
The Diocese of Kalamazoo released a statement Monday afternoon.
“The Diocese of Kalamazoo has a long-standing commitment to assist immigrants seeking a legal pathway to citizenship through its Immigration Assistance Program (IAP.) We are devastated that our clients were defrauded by an individual misrepresenting the ministry during their time of employment,” the Diocese of Kalamazoo said. “The IAP office continues to work with those individuals who were impacted and stands ready to assist all victims of fraud in this matter.
“We are grateful for the diligence of law enforcement as well as the U.S. Attorney General’s Office in bringing the legal matter to a resolution.”
Homeland Security Investigations and the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety investigated the case.