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Woman pleads guilty to fraud

The Baltimore Sun

A Columbia woman pleaded guilty to felony theft and conspiracy to commit theft in Baltimore Circuit Court yesterday as part of an elaborate plot to defraud the city school system of millions of dollars.

Ashita Patel, 47, conspired with a business associate, Rajiv Dixit, to create a fake maintenance firm and to bill the school system for unnecessary work, according to attorneys with the Office of the State Prosecutor. At the time, Dixit was head of the school system's facilities and maintenance department, and he had the authority to sign off on invoices.

In accordance with a plea agreement, Patel was sentenced to five years of supervised probation and ordered to perform 350 hours of community service, according to State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh. She also paid $32,000 in restitution to the school system and forfeited $40,000 to the federal government.

Rohrbaugh said that Patel's conviction represents the end of the "first phase" of his office's investigation into financial irregularities at the city school system. Rohrbaugh declined to elaborate but said that his office adheres to the "old adage: 'Follow the money.'"

"We certainly do intend to continue our investigation," he added.

Dixit - who accepted bribes of money, alcohol and other gifts from business owners to authorize dozens of fake invoices - admitted to stealing millions from the school system and was sentenced to five years in prison in 2005. Prosecutors describe him as the ringleader of the scheme, which involved more than a dozen players and created a budget nightmare for the school system.

"I always called this 'the wheel and spokes case,'" said Steven Trostle, a former senior assistant state prosecutor who litigated the Dixit case and also worked on the Patel case before opening his own law firm. "Dixit had his hands out to a dozen people, all of whom were bribing him."

Dixit also worked with former boiler company owner and liquor license broker Gilbert Sapperstein, who submitted fraudulent work claims to Dixit so he could receive more money than he was owed. Sapperstein pleaded guilty to theft, bribery and conspiracy and was sentenced to 18 months in prison in 2005. He also repaid the system $3.5 million, the sum he stole plus 6 percent interest.

In all, the state prosecutor's office filed charges against 14 people, including Sapperstein's former office administrator, a retired city police officer and the owners of several local heating and air conditioning firms. Many of those convicted of bribery and other charges in connection to the scheme were required to repay the school system, and some were forced to contribute to a scholarship program for city youths.

Dixit, of Reisterstown, repaid the school system $500,000 and paid another $500,000 to the federal government.

He and Patel were business associates - they owned an Exxon gas station - before they created a fake firm called Kesa Maintenance. Patel would send fake invoices to Dixit and he would approve them, prosecutors said.

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