Couple accused of scamming Social Security, CPS, couldn’t keep story straight

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Karen Kimmey, owner of the OK Travel Agency, which did millions in business with Chicago Public Schools, faces federal charges, accused of helping an employee in a Social Security scam. | Photo from OK Travel Facebook page

The feds came calling in 2015, wondering why a woman who for decades had collected disability checks and insisted she couldn’t work appeared to be gainfully employed at a Southwest Side travel agency in the shadow of Midway Airport.

The woman and her husband told the feds they had it all wrong. Margaret Marcello may have helped out from time to time, they allegedly insisted. But it was really Richard Marcello — a city clerk employee — who had worked for years for OK Travel Agency near 63rd and Menard.

Then the Marcellos found themselves swept up in an unrelated investigation by the watchdog agency for the Chicago Public Schools. And facing a new set of interrogators, they just couldn’t keep their story straight. They insisted Margaret was the travel agency employee.

Now the Marcellos have been charged in a scam to swindle more than $111,000 out of the Social Security Administration over eight years. They are charged along with OK Travel owner Karen Kimmey, who is accused of participating in the couple’s conspiracy to obstruct the feds.

Along the way, Kimmey allegedly told officials her company’s dealings with CPS were its “bread and butter.” And she said Margaret Marcello was in charge of it.

Margaret Marcello | Chicago Police photo

Margaret Marcello | Chicago Police photo

Now, the schools inspector general has said Margaret Marcello made opportunistic use of OK Travel’s “poor bookkeeping to defraud the district and steal from OK Travel.”

The Marcellos’ attorneys did not respond to messages seeking comment. Kimmey’s lawyer declined to talk about the allegations.

Several details about the investigation are contained in a recently unsealed search warrant application.

All three have pleaded not guilty to the charges filed in federal court in April. Margaret Marcello also faces state court charges alleging she stole $4,200 in gift cards from OK Travel, though records show she entered a deferred prosecution program.

In March, Chicago’s Board of Education barred OK Travel, its owner and Marge Marcello from any future work with the schools. That ban was recommended by schools inspector general Nicholas Schuler, who began looking at the firm around 2015, “based on their grossly negligent failure to maintain documents concerning OK Travel’s CPS business dealings.”

OK Travel had handled travel arrangements for the city’s public schools since 1999, according to a CPS spokeswoman, billing at least $7.3 million since then.

Business with the schools averaged about $400,000 a year, though in 2013 it went as high as $1.3 million. The firm had no contracts with the Board of Ed during that time, so all that work came from individual schools and administrators booking travel plans that cost under a $75,000 threshold requiring a contract subject to a school board vote.

For example, records from CPS’ website show that Margaret Marcello booked $34,000 in airline tickets to Paris for a Southwest Side high school in 2015.

But the agency also provided gift cards for meals for students taking college tours or teachers and educators traveling to training workshops so CPS wouldn’t have to hand out cash.

While looking into problems with gift cards across the school system, the inspector general’s office suspected OK Travel of shortchanging CPS on some of the gift cards CPS had paid for.

Confronted by investigators in April 2017, Margaret Marcello said she stole gift cards from her employer — not from CPS. She admitted she used the agency’s relationship with CPS to keep at least $4,000 in gift cards, some of which she and her husband used for a trip to Cancun, Mexico.

Because OK Travel kept such shoddy records of its gift card sales to CPS, Schuler wrote in a January report that he couldn’t determine whether she had stolen from CPS or from her boss, Kimmey.

Kimmey, meanwhile, admitted she had inflated prices at one school in response to a billing dispute with CPS.

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