There are two major behavioral red flags for the potential to commit fraud in the workplace, according to the Assn. of Certified Fraud Examiners: employees with familial difficulties and those spending more than they can afford. Jennifer Choi hit both criteria, according to court documents.
Experts say workplace theft is often committed by employees who feel a sense of entitlement after serving a company for many years, especially if the company has a lavish culture of rewarding top managers. Choi’s attorney, Zoe Dolan, cited the environment at HBO as playing a role in her client’s downfall.
“The corporate culture that prevailed in the company for many years afforded an opportunity for employees to take advantage of lax spending standards. When Jennifer lost her bearings following a diagnosis of HIV, in 2007, she succumbed to moral weakness and began to live a double life,” Dolan wrote in a letter to U.S. District judge John Kronstadt, who will determine Choi’s sentence Jan. 12. “On the surface, [Choi] sought to cultivate the image that she had been raised to project: a successful, self-sufficient woman with enough material comforts to go around — a superficial identity that the entertainment industry only encourages.”
Prosecutors say Choi’s crime was compounded by the fact that she was a manager who directed others to submit or approve invoices that contributed to her fraud. HBO insiders say at least two other former staffers were suspected of being aware of Choi’s scheme, but she was the only person prosecuted.
“This was a crime motivated by greed,” assistant U.S. attorney Jeffrey Chemerinsky wrote in a sentencing document filed with the court in November. “Almost all of this money appears to have been spent to support an extravagant lifestyle. Defendant was not driven to her crimes as many defendants who come before this court are: by need, by desperation, or by the inability to do anything else.”
Moreover, Choi already had faced a felony conviction for theft, stemming from her time working for veteran talent manager and agent Carol Bodie in 2000 and 2001. In 2002, Choi was charged in Beverly Hills with one count of theft and four counts of forgery in connection with checks totaling $3,487. The forgery counts were ultimately dropped, and Choi pleaded guilty to the theft charge. She was sentenced to one day in jail and three years probation. The conviction was later dismissed after Choi completed the terms of her probation and paid restitution to Bodie.
It’s unclear if HBO conducted a background check on Choi before her hire in 2005.
In letters to the judge, Choi and her attorney described Choi’s strained home life growing up in Pacific Palisades, and her struggles with two abusive boyfriends in her teens and early 20s. Letters to the judge from friends, including Hulu exec Deva Kehoe and her former HBO co-worker Stanley W. Cooke Matthews, stress Choi’s generosity. Choi and her husband, Alex Harris, took two teenage nephews into their Sherman Oaks apartment when they needed a home. Basketball star Lamar Odom, a childhood friend of Harris, also briefly moved in with the family amid his public struggles with drug abuse and his rocky marriage to Khloé Kardashian.
In asking the judge for leniency in his sentencing, Choi described her mental state as having “spiraled out of control” when she learned she was HIV-positive after contracting pneumonia in January 2007. Choi said in her letter to the judge that she believed she contracted HIV from her boyfriend in high school.
“Getting ‘caught’ and admitting my faults has slammed me into reality,” she wrote. “The saying goes, ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ and I was a derailed train that finally crashed. It has put my life into perspective and forced me to acknowledge my issues. I know now that it is safe to admit that I am not doing okay — mentally or physically. I do not have a fairytale life. The glitz and glamour of the entertainment world were just distractions.”
Choi received another blow when she learned in 2012 that Harris had been unfaithful. She has asked the judge to spare her a prison sentence for the sake of her children. Harris, she told the judge, works long hours and travels frequently in his job as a bodyguard. He also “drinks too much,” Choi wrote. “I don’t know how my husband will be able to work, cover bills, and pay for full-time childcare. I don’t have a support system that will be able to make sure my children will be okay without me.”
Choi’s portrayal of a familial life that is not “stable” and facing financial hardship stands in contrast to photos she has shared on Twitter and Instagram. She has taken her kids to Disneyland, to the Grove shopping center, to Dodger Stadium, and to “Chocolate Nutcracker” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. (By the condition of her bail, Choi cannot leave the state of California.)
In October, Choi told the judge she was working part-time as a travel agent. From her social media feeds, it appears she has also worked as a stylist for the e-commerce jewelry business Stella & Dot.
Choi told the judge her long-term goal is to find work as an event planner. She also aims to work with other women who are HIV-positive. “I would like to help counter the stigma and stereotype of being a woman who has contracted the virus,” Choi wrote. “I wish I had someone I could have talked to when I initially discovered my diagnosis. I wish I had confidence and felt secure in myself.”
(Pictured: Jennifer Choi with her husband, Alex Harris, in 2007)