NEW YORK, April 18 – LAWFUEL – The Law News Network — The criminal background of a contract worker for TIAA-CREF, the massive pension fund for teachers and professors, went undetected for nearly two months, during which she had access to customer data from a number of colleges, including Harvard, the University of Michigan
and Purdue. Newsweek has learned that just days before Sonia Radencovich began
work at TIAA-CREF last Sept. 27, she was sentenced to four years in prison for
her role in a huge financial scam. Under what appears to be her real name —
Sonia Howe — she was convicted of helping her friend and lover Martin Frankel
bilk more than $200 million from insurance firms. She was to begin her
sentence on Jan. 4 at the same prison that housed Martha Stewart.
Because Howe was a contractor from Tek Systems, a “preferred vendor” to
TIAA-CREF, Chris O’Keefe — the tech manager who hired Howe — assumed Tek had
checked her background, reports Senior Writer Charles Gasparino. “She seemed
like the type of person you could trust,” O’Keefe says. But a co-worker knew
about her from the Frankel scam and notified management. Fund execs say they
then discovered Howe had brought her laptop computer to the office — a
violation of policy — and downloaded some data. She was fired in November and
is now in prison on charges of racketeering and money laundering.
A TIAA-CREF spokeswoman says that an ongoing “forensic investigation” of
Howe’s activities shows she had access to data from fewer than 100 people,
though she “potentially had access” to many more. She says there’s no evidence
that Howe misused the information. Howe’s attorney, Stephen Manning, says she
“did not make any unauthorized use of data.” But the security breach shows
that even criminals can get easy access to personal data.
In the April 25 issue of Newsweek (on newsstands Monday, April 18),
Gasparino reports that Tek Systems used a unit of Kroll Inc., a well-known
consulting firm, to conduct its background checks. A copy of its report on
Howe — obtained by Newsweek — shows that she had used many different names
over the years, including her real name. A spokeswoman for Kroll said Tek
ordered only a “standard criminal background procedure” to search records over
seven years just in the counties where she lived. The search didn’t include
Connecticut, where Howe was convicted in federal court (a Google search of
“Sonia Howe” turns up many hits that include government filings citing her
sentencing and her ties to Frankel, who’s serving 16 years).
TIAA-CREF fired O’Keefe for failing to supervise his staff, giving Howe
access to client data and not stopping her from using her laptop at the
office. Gasparino reports that O’Keefe has now filed a “whistle-blower
complaint” with the Labor Department and is considering suing his former
employer. “I wasn’t supposed to do a background check,” he says.