Feds: Pa. man laundered stolen drilling firm money

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PITTSBURGH – An auto repair shop owner helped a former natural gas drilling company executive launder more than $762,000 in allegedly stolen money as part of a scheme authorities have said cost the energy firm as much as $10 million.


The money laundering conspiracy charge filed against Daniel Pikel relates to thefts from Falcon Drilling, whose former controller has pleaded guilty to helping the company’s former chief operating officer steal some of the missing money.


The controller, 43-year-old Cheryl Brooks, of Clymer, will be sentenced May 31. Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Melucci said at her guilty plea hearing in January that authorities planned to indict Falcon’s former COO, Larry Winckler, in connection with the stolen money. He also said that investigators had traced about $10 million in stolen funds, though the investigation was continuing.


Winckler, 52, of Indiana, Pa., has not been indicted and his defense attorney, Martin Dietz, did not immediately return a call for comment Wednesday.


Dietz previously confirmed the ongoing federal investigation of his client, who was charged by state police last year with stealing nearly $1 million from Falcon Drilling. Those charges have been dropped, with the state police saying they had enlisted the FBI and Internal Revenue Service to help their investigation as the tally of stolen money grew.


Brooks pleaded guilty to conspiracy, mail fraud and tax fraud and acknowledged helping Winckler steal more than $5.4 million from Falcon, including $557,000 she kept for herself.


The new charge against Pikel, 57, of Home, contends he used his business, Pikel Universal Auto Repair in Rayne Township, to help Winckler steal $762,450. Pikel’s defense attorneys didn’t immediately return requests for comment.


According to the criminal information filed by federal prosecutors in Pittsburgh Monday, Pikel cashed 28 checks that Winckler wrote against Falcon’s petty cash account from June 2009 through December 2011.


Pikel then faked invoices from his company, which suggested that his auto repair company had sold Falcon drill bits.


In fact, no drill bits were delivered and the whole process was a ruse to help Winckler steal the money, which Pikel then gave to Winckler. The charges don’t say whether Pikel kept any money for himself as part of the alleged scheme.


Brooks’ attorney, Patrick Nightingale, has said she is “full of remorse and grief” and is cooperating with investigators and working to repay the money by selling real and personal property she owned before the thefts – that is, not property she bought with the stolen money. The attorney said she is also surrendering a vested pension.


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