Indiana, PA - Indiana County

State police, feds expand embezzlement probe

by SAM KUSIC skusic@indianagazette.net on February 29, 2012 1:15 AM

HOME -- Federal authorities have widened an investigation into a scheme in which employees of a local natural gas driller allegedly stole at a least $955,000 from their employer.

On Tuesday, U.S. Postal Service inspectors, IRS criminal investigators and state police searched three locations in Home, Rayne Township -- Pikel's Universal Auto Repair, 22 Route 85; a home at 200 Griffith Drive; and an auto body shop along Bush Road, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Pittsburgh.

The three locations are owned by businessman Dan Pikel, who declined to comment on the searches this morning. Pikel also owns Pikel's BP Inn along Route 119, but the tavern was not searched, he said.

Margaret Philbin, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, confirmed that federal agents had searched the locations as part of an ongoing investigation, but she declined to comment further.

Indiana County District Attorney Pat Dougherty, however, said the searches are related to the scheme, which centers on the controller and chief operating officer at Falcon Drilling, along Route 119 in Rayne Township. Dougherty also declined to comment further, citing the ongoing investigation.

Earlier this month, state police charged Larry Winckler, Falcon's chief operating officer, with 29 counts each of theft and receiving stolen property, contending he had taken at least $955,000 over the past seven years.

The thefts came to light when Cheryl Brooks, the company's controller, reported the scheme to the Indiana County District Attorney's Office and state police. According to court records, Brooks told police that she had been writing checks to Winckler and herself at his request and had been creating fake invoices to cover the missing money.

Brooks told police she had been writing checks in amounts less than $50,000 because auditors were not reviewing transactions below that amount. Police have charged Winckler, 51, with stealing $955,000, an amount based on what company accountants had found at the time charges were filed. Police said Brooks told them she had written checks to herself totaling $150,000 to $200,000.

However, the company's owner, Daniel Donahue, told police that accountants believe the two may have taken $4.8 million over the years.

Brooks has not been charged.

At the time Winckler was charged, state police had said they would be speaking to federal authorities to determine whether any federal laws may have been broken.

"Just because of the significant monetary amount involved and the fact that this was such an elaborate embezzlement operation that has been going on the past several years … it was imperative that we would collectively discuss this … with appropriate federal authorities," Trooper John Matchik said at the time.

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