A photoshopped image of one of the iconic lions outside the Art Institute of Chicago disguised as a thief (edit Valentina Di Liscia/Hyperallergic)

Michael Maurello, a former payroll manager at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC), has been indicted for allegedly misappropriating more than $2 million in museum funds in an improbable scheme that went on for over a decade. Maurello, a resident of Illinois’s Beach Park, was charged with two counts of wire fraud and two counts of bank fraud.

In a statement published Friday, January 13, the US District Court in Chicago accused Maurello of depositing museum funds into his personal account between 2007 and 2020. He was able to remain under the radar by designating the payments in the AIC’s payroll system as those of other or former employees, or by changing the nature of the deposits. According to the indictment, Maurello ascribed fictitious reasons to the payments, sometimes falsely labeling them as accrued paid time off (PTO), deductions for life insurance premiums, and tuition remission.

After depositing the money into his accounts, Maurello allegedly concealed the fraud by changing the direct deposit information for his bank back to the employees’ accounts or revising the transactions so they wouldn’t appear on a worker or former worker’s W-2.

When Maurello was approached in January 2020 about one of the payments by the assistant controller, he reportedly lied about the transfer of funds, claiming he was testing the payroll system. On January 31, Maurello edited a report from the platform to hide the funds that he had misappropriated. 

In a statement shared with Hyperallergic, an AIC representative said the museum noticed unusual activity in 2019 after conducting a review of its accounting reports. After an investigation uncovered Maurello’s fraudulent charges, he was terminated soon thereafter and the case was referred to law enforcement. 

“The cumulative loss was significant, but because of the length of time and manner in which it was taken, it did not impact decisions around staffing, payroll, scholarship funding, programming, or other financial aspects of the organization,” the AIC spokesperson said.

Since the incident, the museum says it has created new procedures to detect future fraud attempts and is using insurance to recover funds. An arraignment date has not yet been set by the federal court in Chicago, but each count of wire fraud carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison and each count of bank fraud could receive up to 30 years. If found guilty, Maurello would be required to repay damages estimated at $2.3 million. Maurello could not be reached for comment.

The story is reminiscent of another embezzlement case involving a Chicago institution years ago. In 2017, a former data specialist at Chicago’s Field Museum was sentenced to three years in prison for stealing nearly $1 million via membership fees and other proceeds, such as money for drink tickets from special events. A Field Museum spokesperson told the Chicago Tribune at the time, “Yes, it’s embarrassing somebody got away with it for seven years. But we’ve made sure it won’t happen again.”

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Taylor Michael

Taylor Michael is a staff reporter at Hyperallergic. Previously, she worked as a public programs coordinator at the National Book Foundation. She received an MFA from Columbia University School...

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