Obliging officials for the Crowley Independent School District thought they were sending nearly $2 million to a new bank account of one its contractors.
Instead, the three payments went to the account of a man living on Big Pine Key, Fla., now charged with federal felony wire fraud. U.S. marshals for the Southern District of Florida on Wednesday were holding Donald Conkright, 61, pending his extradition to Texas.
If convicted, Conkright faces up to 30 years in prison and fines totalling as much as $1 million.
When FBI agents arrested Conkright Dec. 13 on Big Pine Key, they seized a 2018 BMW worth $128,000 and two Rolex watches with a combined value of $71,000, believed to have been purchased with some of the Crowley ISD funds, according to documents pulled together by The Dallas Morning News.
Mike McFarland, superintendent of the district of about 15,000 students on Fort Worth’s southern edge, posted a statement on the district website to say that officials are addressing conditions that allowed the alleged fraud to happen.
“I want to assure our community that Crowley ISD remains financially strong and is working to prevent future fraud schemes by reviewing our systems and putting additional safeguards in place,” McFarland wrote.
McFarland said district officials notified local and federal law enforcement when they learned of the fraud on Nov. 20. According to a federal criminal complaint, Conkright first emailed the Crowley district’s director of accounting on Oct. 24.
The email was made to look like it came from an accountant for Steele & Freeman Inc., a Fort Worth construction company that’s building a new career technology center and a new elementary school for the district.
The email said Steele & Freeman was updating its account with Crowley and provided new payment routing instructions. According to the district, the accounting department made a test payment of $1 on Nov. 13. When the payment was accepted, the district forwarded a payment of $522,588.98 that day and another for $1,473,126.54 the following day, according to court documents gathered by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
On the other end, Conkright had opened an account with IberiaBank with a $1,000 deposit on Oct. 15, federal investigators said. After the Crowley funds came in, Conkright made 51 withdrawals totalling $1.9 million between Nov. 13 and Nov. 18.
Conkright deposited $750,000 of the money into another account he had set up and transferred payment to a Kay Jewelers in South Florida, according to the court documents.
Interviewed later, IberiaBank employees told investigators Conkright said he had gotten the money from an inheritance his girlfriend had received.
McFarland’s statement does not say how the district learned it had been defrauded. District officials did not return a call for comment left by The Texas Monitor.
“Due to the ongoing investigation, we are not able to provide additional details at this time,” McFarland wrote. “ Upon discovering this fraud, the district immediately contacted authorities, including the FBI, and began an internal review.
“Unfortunately, business email compromise schemes like this have become common with other organizations and school districts targeted. We will continue to work closely with authorities to bring the suspect to justice and recover the stolen funds.”
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].