March 4, 2010

Women's advocate facing jail


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Staff Photo by John Ewing, Monday, November 14, 2005: Shalom Odokara is executive director of Women In Need, Inc., an organization originally conceived as a group to help women in Asia and Africa, but which also assists Maine and Portland women in need off housing, jobs, or victims of domestic abuse. Women In Need also runs the Greater Portland Festival of Nations held in Deering Oaks.

Staff Writer

PORTLAND — Federal prosecutors want the director of a Portland-based nonprofit organization to spend 15 months in prison for forging bank records and lying to her probation officer.

The lawyer for Shalom Odokara has said he will ask the judge for a sentence that doesn't include prison time.

Odokara, 49, is scheduled to be sentenced this afternoon by Judge D. Brock Hornby in U.S. District Court. She pleaded guilty in June to two counts of making false statements to her probation officer, and has admitted to violating the terms of her probation for an earlier federal conviction.

Odokara is the founder and director of Women in Need Industries, and is well known in Maine as an advocate for women's rights, immigrants and victims of domestic violence. The seventh annual Festival of Nations, created by Odokara, was held at Deering Oaks in July.

Until her resignation on July 2, Odokara was vice chair of the Portland Planning Board.

Most city officials were surprised by revelations about Odokara's criminal history and her false statements, which came to light in June.

Odokara pleaded guilty in 2006 for her role in a scheme that involved the embezzlement of $108,000 from the World Bank. According to court records in Washington, D.C., Odokara was a consultant to the World Bank when she and a friend carried out the scheme over several months in 2001.

She was sentenced in March 2008 to five years on probation, during which she was required to report her monthly financial activity. Her probation officer discovered earlier this year that Odokara was providing false financial information, and had forged bank statements that she submitted in her monthly reports.

''The defendant's conduct was not the product of a momentary lapse in judgment,'' Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Wolff wrote in his sentencing recommendation to the judge. ''Rather, the defendant submitted ten successive false monthly reports between May of 2008 and February of 2009. Likewise, the forged bank statements created by the defendant were the product of substantial time and effort.''

Bruce Merrill, Odokara's lawyer, could not be reached for comment on Monday. In an interview this summer, Merrill said that his client co-mingled personal bank accounts with accounts for Women in Need Industries.

Merrill said that was a mistake and Odokara should not have tried to hide her sloppy bookkeeping, but prison time is too severe a penalty for the nature of the crime.

Odokara is no longer in charge of the financial records of Women in Need. That job is being done by an accounting firm, at the request of Judge Hornby.

Wolff, the government prosecutor, said in court documents that the court went easy on Odokara for the World Bank conviction because of the positive work she has done with Women in Need.

''The defendant made a mockery of the court's leniency, however, when she committed a new federal offense and violated her probation within weeks of being sentenced,'' Wolff wrote. ''The defendant's incarceration will unfortunately halt the work done by her organization in the community. The defendant has only herself to blame for this consequence of her criminal behavior.''

Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at:

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