'Joe Phantom': How One Worker Took City Hall for $1 Million with an ATM and a Rubber Stamp

His fellow employees had no idea that mild-mannered "nice guy" Joe Phan was a millionaire and - relying merely on a rubber stamp, an ATM machine and a willing bank - was depositing stolen city checks into his personal account at the rate of more than $360,000 annually - equal to about twice the annual salary of his boss, Seattle Public Utilities Director Ray Hoffman.

Nor did they know that Phan, who made $81,000 a year, was the owner of property worth $1.1 million, including two homes he rented out for $3,000 through the Seattle Housing Authority.

Today, however, Joe "Phantom" as some call him, sits in jail unable to make $750,000 bail, his assets and bank accounts frozen by the city attorney's office which has put Phan and his wife of ten years and their two children on a monthly allowance for food and services and mortgages payments on their three homes.

The millionaire former city engineer was caught only after he was found to have used the city's computer billing system to cheat on his garbage-bill payment, leading to a wider probe. He's now accused of stealing more than 70 checks from his employer in what King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg calls the biggest government embezzlement case in modern Seattle City Hall history.

And it was all pulled off so effortlessly, as Seattle Weekly reports in its cover story today.

Investigators have created a trail of almost 1,000 documents to follow the money that flowed through Phan's Bank of America account. Yet, says Satterberg,"I was struck by how simple and easy it was, and how few questions were asked. One of the deposited checks [made out to the City of Seattle] was three years old. I didn't think banks accepted a check as old as that.

"He had an official-looking little rubber stamp made up that he used to stamp the backs of the checks, and then put them through an ATM," says Satterberg. "There was little face-to-face contact with the bank." He was able to open the personal bank account in his name and that of an imaginary co-signer - the "City of Sea" - by merely showing his driver's license, says a police investigator.

Besides the willingness of BofA to look the other way as dozens of city checks - one worth more than $200,000 - were deposited into his account over three years, Phan is thought to have also taken advantage of a city accounting system that officials admit was flawed and unable to track diverted checks, and is now only temporarily fixed.

Phan, who was widely liked in the department, has pleaded not guilty to 67 counts of first-degree theft and three counts of second-degree theft. He is being defended by the law firm of local NAACP chapter president James Bible, which will be paid a $25,000 legal retainer that the city is allowing Phan and his wife to withdraw from one of their personal bank accounts.

Sign on Bank of America Cash Machine
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