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Counterfeit checks cost state, banks tens of thousands of dollars, authorities say

| Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013, 5:12 p.m.

Three people surrendered to authorities on Tuesday, accused in an intricate scheme involving counterfeit checks and “ghost” employees to steal tens of thousands of dollars from banks and the Department of Public Welfare.

The Allegheny County District Attorney's Office expects to arraign 11 others by Friday, including two men in the county jail.

Andrew Fisher, 36, of Lower Burrell and Crystal Nelson, 30, and Anthony Howell, 26, both of New Kensington are charged with theft by deception, receiving stolen property, forgery, access device fraud and criminal conspiracy.

They could not be reached, and it was not clear whether they have lawyers.

In one criminal complaint, Rich Vogel, loss prevention manager for Giant Eagle, reported to Penn Hills police that Raybon J. Cogdell, a former customer service employee at the grocer's Rodi Road location, accepted several payroll checks totaling several thousand dollars that came back unpaid because banks were “unable to locate account.”

A month later, Giant Eagle provided investigators with copies of nine counterfeit checks and certificates of deposit and video surveillance images recorded during the transactions. The checks were drawn in April for differing amounts below the $1,000 threshold requiring management approval.

Five of the checks purportedly were issued by Christian Financial Management, a company that contracted with the Welfare Department to pay caregivers in the Office of Long-Term Living. Omega Federal Credit Union purportedly issued three and Advantage Home Health Care one.

The checks were made payable to eight people.

Detective Jackelyn Weibel with the district attorney's office discovered the money went to phony employees of several companies. The companies later said they never had accounts at the banks from which the checks were drawn or addresses on checks were incorrect.

Weibel found 26 checks totaling about $55,190.

Weibel said the 14 people accused negotiated checks “that they knew to be fraudulent” and either received cash immediately or withdrew money before the unpaid checks returned to the bank.

Adam Brandolph is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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