March 4, 2010

Women's advocate to serve 6 months


— By

Staff Writer

PORTLAND — A federal judge sentenced a former Portland Planning Board member Wednesday to six months in prison, striking a middle ground between the prosecutor's request and supporters who urged the judge to keep Shalom Odokara out of prison.

Odokara is expected to begin the sentence Nov. 13. She is well-known in Portland as the director of a nonprofit organization called Women in Need Industries and the founder of the annual Festival of Nations.

Odokara pleaded guilty in June to violating her probation on an earlier federal conviction, as well as two counts of providing false statements to her probation officer. She stepped down from the Planning Board in July.

''Clearly, Ms. Odokara has played a positive role in the community and in her family, with her friends,'' said Judge D. Brock Hornby.

But those good deeds do not excuse her criminal conduct and the fact that she began committing new crimes just a few months after a judge in Washington, D.C., sentenced her to five years of probation in 2008, Hornby said.

''The suggestion of no jail time is simply not an option,'' he said. ''Everyone must comply with the law, even if they do good deeds.''

Hornby told Odokara that he hopes she will be able to return to the community and once again help women.

Bruce Merrill, Odokara's lawyer, said the future of Women in Need remains unclear.

As part of her probation after she gets out of prison, Odokara will have to be employed by an independent third party. That means she could work for Women in Need if another person stepped up to run the organization, but she will not be allowed to run it herself, Merrill said.

The prosecutor asked for a 15-month sentence for Odokara; Merrill asked for a continued period of probation with strict conditions and no prison time.

''Shalom is grateful that the judge did show some lenience toward her, and grateful that this is all now behind her,'' Merrill said.

Odokara wept and hugged her relatives and friends at the back of the courtroom after the hearing. She comforted them and told them she was prepared to pay the price for her misconduct.

In 2006, Odokara pleaded guilty to charges related to her role in a scheme that involved the theft of $108,000 from the World Bank in 2001.

According to court records, Odokara was a consultant who was authorized to receive payments from the World Bank. A friend who worked in the bank's accounting department wired payments to Odokara from March to July 2001, using money that was owed to other contractors.

Odokara paid her friend $41,000 and kept $67,000, according to court documents. The friend, Aissatou Koundoul, was indicted but remains at large.

Odokara pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to structure transactions. She admitted that she received the money and returned some to Koundoul, but she maintained that she didn't know it had been stolen from the World Bank.

In court records, Odokara said she believed she was helping Koundoul's husband bring money from overseas into the United States. She was sentenced in March 2008 to five years of probation and ordered to pay back the full $108,000 to the government. Odokara still owes most of that money.

As part of the sentence, Odokara was required to report her monthly financial activity.

Earlier this year, her probation officer discovered that Odokara had provided false information and had forged bank statements that she submitted. Odokara pleaded guilty in June to those charges.

Hornby said the guidelines for the 2006 conviction called for a sentence of eight to 14 months, but U.S. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan ''gave Ms. Odokara a break'' by imposing a sentence of probation -- largely because of the good work she had done with Women in Need.

''It cannot continue to be a free pass for Ms. Odokara,'' Hornby said. ''At the same time, I do not want to be vindictive in sentencing.''

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

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