An office manager for late senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) was convicted Tuesday of stealing more than $77,000 from taxpayers by paying himself unauthorized bonuses from 2003 to 2007.
Ngozi Pole, 38, was convicted on five counts of wire fraud and one count of theft of government property for arranging money to be deposited to his congressional credit union account without approval from Kennedy's chiefs of staff. Each fraud charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and the theft charge a maximum of 10 years.
U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan set sentencing for July 14 and released Pole on his own recognizance.
"Employees of Congress are entrusted with performing their duties honestly and ethically,"
Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer of the criminal division said in a written statement. "While hundreds of them live up to that important duty every day, we will, as today's verdict shows, hold accountable those few who use their positions to illegally enrich themselves."
The week-long trial and verdict marked the latest embezzlement prosecution of a congressional staff member or campaign aide. Analysts say that abuses are growing as the amount of money in politics is surging, sometimes outpacing managers' attention.
Since May 2008, former aides to Reps. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.); Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.); and the former treasurer of the National Republican Congressional Committee have been sentenced for stealing amounts ranging from $7,000 to $844,000 from taxpayers or campaign donors.
One of them, Laura Flores, who worked for Harman and Abercrombie, helped trigger a Justice Department investigation into whether lawmakers used official resources for campaign purposes. Many such cases often are handled quietly without charges or settled before trial. But Pole's indictment in December 2009 came after Kennedy's death that August, eliminating concerns about embarrassing his office.
In this case, Pole, a former rental-car clerk, joined Kennedy's staff in 1998 and left in February 2007 to become deputy chief of staff for incoming Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). Pole was dismissed after his activities were discovered by Kennedy's chief of staff, Eric Mogilnicki.
Taking the stand in his own defense, Pole, of Waldorf, claimed that Kennedy's top aides ignored his requests to set clearer office policies and to manage an annual budget that ranged from $1.9 million to $2.8 million a year during his tenure.
Pole said he awarded extra bonuses to himself and to a handful of other senior staffers because the office was under pressure to minimize annual surpluses of up to 10 percent. Chiefs of staff in the fast-moving office didn't want to know details, Pole said.
"I was on an island trying to spend down a budget that I knew the senator wanted at zero," Pole said. "I could have made better management decisions."
Prosecutors said Pole hid the bonuses from his bosses because he knew they would not approve them. Pole presented misleading charts and summaries that did not reveal that he was padding his base salary - which topped out at $82,000 - by $8,000 to $30,000 a year, they charged.
"You don't need a handbook to tell you not to steal and not to lie," said Ethan H. Levisohn, a lawyer for the Justice Department's public integrity section.