A Charleston-area property manager accused by dozens of homeowner associations of pocketing more than $700,000 of their money now faces prison time on a federal criminal charge.
Karen Colie, who owned Marshland Communities on Johns Island, was charged Wednesday with wire fraud. She promptly pleaded guilty to the felony that carries up to 20 years behind bars and a $250,000 fine. She was not immediately sentenced.
Filed in U.S. District Court in Charleston, Colie's plea agreement called for her to pay back every "identifiable victim" that fell under her scheme.
Colie had already been the target of a lawsuit in which 47 homeowner groups accused her of overbilling or charging for services that her company never performed. All told, she had boasted being hired by nearly 60 neighborhoods, including Shadowmoss Plantation in West Ashley and Liberty Hall Plantation in Goose Creek.
The criminal charge came through an "information," which in federal court allows for a quick guilty plea without a grand jury indictment.
Her attorney, Cameron Blazer of Mount Pleasant, said the housing crisis that contributed to the recession a decade ago had created many difficult years for property managers.
"Marshland became completely overwhelmed financially," Blazer said in statement. "As Marshland's leader, Karen made choices she deeply regrets."
For five years until 2016, Colie billed clients for services never performed or for items that the homeowner associations never received, the court document said. She also overcharged for the collection of delinquent dues and inflated the amount of time that employees spent representing their clients in court, the paperwork alleged.
To further mislead one association, the records stated, she created a fictitious email purporting to be from a bank executive confirming the value of a nearly $60,000 deposit.
Colie used the ill-gotten proceeds — totaling $763,000 from 19 communities — for her own benefit, federal authorities said.
In the neighborhood groups' lawsuit against Colie, some of her employees said she had acknowledged the fraud. One said, according to an affidavit, that she had "made some terrible mistakes in an effort to stay afloat."
The federal government is expected to seize some of her assets to pay back the victims, the federal court records stated. Among the property they plan to take is a diamond ring valued at $37,000.
Colie has cooperated with the FBI since the investigation began, her lawyer said.
"Though navigating the criminal process has been painful and frightening," Blazer said, "she looks forward to the opportunity to make amends for the mistakes she made."