Credit union officer charged with embezzling millions

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Pontiac – A Fenton man better known for his generous charitable acts – like once shelling out $4,000 for an apple pie at a church fundraiser – was charged Friday in a scheme which authorities said involved the embezzlement of $20 million from an Oakland County credit union.

Michael A. LaJoice, the chief financial officer of the Clarkston Brandon Community Credit Union, allegedly looted the funds from the facililty over a 12-year-period beginning in 2003.

LaJoice, 36, was arraigned Friday on 14 charges involving unlawful withdrawal and conversion for his own use of $1.9 million in credit union funds and placing them in his own personal accounts between Oct. 22 and Dec. 16, 2015. Multiple withdrawals of $100,000 – several on the same day – were allegedly made, according to the arraignment.

Michael Anthony LaJoice

In a video arraignment Friday in Clarkston District Court, Magistrate Daniel Schouman entered a not guilty-plea on LaJoice’s behalf and set a $1 million bond with conditions of a GPS tether and home confinement. A Jan. 20 probable cause hearing and a Jan. 26 preliminary exam are also scheduled.

The offenses are all felonies each punishable by up to 20 years in prison and fines.

LaJoice, who sat impassively during the lengthy reading of charges, told Schouman he understood the charges and planned to hire his own attorney.

"His lifestyle is like something out of the 'Rich and Famous'" said assistant prosecuting attorney Rob Novy, who had argued for a $20 million bond due to the unusual circumstance,. "His home includes a private nine-seat movie theater ... high-end appliances ... things that could not have been purchased on his salary.”

Novy said investigators have discovered seven accounts totaling $800,000 cash and it has been his experience there are likely more.

Detective Sgt. David Hendrick told Schouman that LaJoice, who is married and has three children, was arrested Wednesday morning after he walked into the Oakland County Sheriff's Office and made statements implicating himself with the embezzlement. Investigators obtained search warrants on several locations, including LaJoice's home, and froze the bank accounts linked to the 36-year-old accountant and dance studio owner.

Clarkston Brandon Community Credit Union main branch in Clarkston.

A safe, computers and business records were also removed from a Livingston County home and were still being examined as investigators attempt to track down missing funds.

"The credit union is conducting an extensive audit," Hendrick told Schoulman, an investigation that is expected to eventually uncover theft in excess of the $20 million already estimated.

"We weren't even aware of this until he came forward," said Undersheriff Michael McCabe. "The matter is still under investigation."

Calls to LaJoice's home and business were not returned to The News.

Lajoice's 5,800-square foot home in in the Applewood community in Fenton.

It was not known what prompted LaJoice to suddenly turn himself in and investigators are still trying to determine if the scheme involved anyone else. The scheme involved bogus transactions and investments to mask the taking of funds for LaJoice's own purposes, according to a preliminary probe.

It all began to unravel during a recent audit of books at the credit union, located on Ortonville Road. It remains unclear why the embezzlement was overlooked.

The credit union, in operation since 1957, has more than 9,300 members, 15 employees and lists resources of more than $60 million.

A credit union official stressed the personal accounts of members are all safe and whole.

"We are currently conducting an investigation into an possible embezzlement of funds from the credit union by a former employee," said Donna Bullard, president and CEO of the credit union. " While this investigation is proceeding we want to assure our members that it is business as usual at the credit union."

Bullard reminded credit union members that all accounts are insured by the National Credit Union Association, a federal share insurance agency, for up to $250,000.

"At this time we are unable to comment any further while the investigation is ongoing," she said. "Members will be updated in the future when more information is available."

So where did the embezzled funds go?

Investigators believe they went to support a lifestyle that exceeded the man's $65,000 annual credit union job, including a $1.3 million, 5,800-square foot home in Fenton, which has undergone extensive renovations. Lajoice also heavily promoted his Chasse ballroom and dance studio, started in the community in 2007, one of several he told others he planned to build over the next decade.

Chasse Ballroom & Latin Dance Studio in Fenton.

But LaJoice's ambitious plans didn't end on the dance floor. He paid $1.2 million for a 3.35-acre site on W. Caroline Street in Fenton last year, where he envisioned a multi-use, six-story project dubbed "Riverview," which he said would include a dance studio, fresh food market, and 53 condominiums. In October, LaJoice announced the project would include a four-story parking area and provide 200 jobs to the Fenton area.

LaJoice's dreams were broadening so much that he sought help to make them happen. He recently advertised for a marketing and event coordinator to handle public relations and social networking for his growing business interests.

"We are currently in the process of not only expanding our current operations, but also looking into other areas that we feel will be successful business ventures," LaJoice wrote in a web notice for the job, adding his employees "are expected to be focused, demonstrate strength of character, intellect and the ability to convert ideas into reality."

LaJoice obtained a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Baker College of Flint in 2003 and was a 1997 graduate of Linden High School, where he met his future wife.

He has been well-known and admired locally for his generosity to charity efforts for the needy and his passion and support of the youth drum and bugle corps.

LaJoice was the recipient of the Fenton Regional Chamber of Commerce's November 2013 Community Hero Award, honoring an everyday person who works to better the community.

When news spread how he paid $4,000 for an apple pie at a local church festival bake sale five years ago, LaJoice humbly responded he grew up in the same church and was glad to be able to help support it.

That same attitude and generosity was also demonstrated at a "Women, Wine, Fashion and Finance Fundraiser" for an area food bank in March 2014. LaJoice was cheered and applauded after taking a microphone at a podium and announced he would personally match whatever total amount raised.

"I don't even know how much that will be — but that doesn't matter," LaJoice told the appreciative, clapping group.

Authorities now believe they know why: It probably wasn't his money.

mmartindale@detroitnews.com

(248) 338-0319