An Upper St. Clair man who ran a Pittsburgh-based lobbying firm is accused by the state Attorney General’s office of stealing more than $100,000 from small businesses in the area.
Joseph Kuklis, 48, operated the consulting firm Wellington Strategies based in Station Square. The firm’s website was taken down after the charges were filed.
Among the firm’s clients were Pittsburgh Technical College, Millie’s Homemade Ice Cream, Digital Dream Labs, Black Concrete and Supplies, Innovatus Imaging and IRA Logix Inc.
All of them are based in the Pittsburgh area and they retained Kuklis to lobby for government grants that never materialized, although Kuklis told the businesses they had received grants, according to a criminal complaint.
“It’s unbelievable,” Jacob Hanchar, chief executive officer of Digital Dream Labs, told the Tribune-Review.
Hanchar’s company is a startup based on the North Side that makes educational games used in schools.
The company paid Kuklis $17,000 for lobbying work, Hanchar said.
He said Kuklis told him Digital Dream Labs had been awarded $425,000 in grants in January. Hanchar said he signed paperwork that looked real and was awaiting the cash.
It never came and, when he pressed Kuklis on it, Hanchar said he was told to expect funds “pretty soon.”
“I was making hiring decisions based on that,” Hanchar said.
In May, he contacted the state himself and was told they weren’t aware of the grant award he was talking about.
He forwarded his communications with Kuklis to state officials that ultimately included the Attorney General’s office.
Without the grant money, “I have to delay those plans,” Hanchar told the Trib.
The criminal complaint against Kuklis details similar experiences from Pittsburgh Technical College, Millie’s Homemade Ice Cream, Black Concrete and Supplies, Innovatus Imaging and IRA Logix Inc.
Kuklis served as deputy state director to former Sen. Rick Santorum, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Kuklis could not be reached for comment Tuesday and his attorney, Michael Finley of the Allegheny County Public Defender’s office, didn’t return a call. Kuklis was released on his own recognizance following his arraignment.
The charges were filed Monday and announced by Attorney General Josh Shapiro Tuesday. They include four counts of theft by deception, six counts of deceptive or fraudulent business practices, six counts of forgery and one count of operating a corrupt organization.
“Small businesses are the backbone of our economy across the Commonwealth, and they deserve to be supported, not scammed,” Shapiro said in a news release. “The defendant falsely promised small business owners that he would obtain badly-needed grant money for them, but instead he used their money to line his own pockets. Today, my Office put a stop to his criminal behavior.”
There may be additional victims in the case, Shapiro said, and those with additional information should call the Attorney General’s office at 412-880-0464.