NEW YORK: Former Weber Shandwick CFO and COO Frank Okunak pled guilty on Wednesday to embezzling more than $16 million from the firm over a period of a decade.
Okunak pled guilty to one count each of wire fraud and falsification of corporate books and records. Each count has a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. He has agreed to forfeit more than $10.8 million and pay restitution of $16 million.
“[Okunak] admitted today to illegally embezzling over $16 million of the firm’s assets to pay for his posh lifestyle. Okunak now awaits sentencing for his decade-long fraud scheme,” said U.S. Attorney Damian Williams of the U.S. Southern District of New York, in a statement.
Okunak embezzled from Weber, and ultimately holding company Interpublic Group, by preparing and causing others to create materially false accounting books and records. They included invoices that purported to be used on behalf of the firm, but were actually for Okunak’s personal business or that of his personal business associates, according to a statement from the Justice Department.
From 2011 to 2020, Okunak caused Weber to make unauthorized payments for his own personal and business ventures that were unrelated to agency business, including for tickets to sporting events and donations to his alma mater, according to the DOJ. He also prepared or caused others to prepare false and misleading invoices to suggest the money was used for legitimate agency business.
Okunak left the firm in 2020.
Weber cooperated with the investigation, according to the DOJ. Since the fraud was discovered in early 2020, Okunak has not been a part of the agency. Current global CFO Deb Nichols has overseen its financial systems and processes and worked closely with its leadership team to manage global operations, according to a Weber spokesperson.
“This discovery was extremely disappointing,” the spokesperson said. “In an industry built on trust, it is distressing when that trust is broken in this way.”
An Interpublic spokesperson said that the holding company suspended and fired Okunak after internal financial reviews alerted its leadership to possible irregularities and it investigated and alerted authorities. No client funds were misused and the embezzled amounts of money were not material to financial statements in any reporting period and did not affect earnings results, the spokesperson said.
“Mr. Okunak made important contributions to Weber Shandwick during his long career at the company. He has been fully cooperating with the government’s investigation of this matter,” said Okunak’s lawyer, Paul Krieger, via email. “Mr. Okunak has accepted full responsibility for his conduct, deeply regrets his wrongdoing and is doing all he can to move forward in a positive manner.”
The embezzling scheme took place during the tenure of three Weber CEOs. Harris Diamond left the firm to lead creative network McCann in late 2012 and was succeeded by Andy Polansky, who led Weber until his promotion to CEO of IPG’s Constituency Management Group, now known as Dxtra, in 2019. Polansky was replaced by Gail Heimann.
Diamond retired from McCann at the end of 2020, and Polansky stepped down as Dxtra’s CEO this June.