Guilty plea ends Native art scam in Juneau

Almost one week before her case was set to go to trial, a downtown Juneau shopkeeper admitted to her role in a Native art scam that authorities brought to light in Southeast Alaska in March.

In a joint change of plea and sentencing hearing Thursday, Norma M. Carandang, 60, pleaded guilty to two counts of misrepresenting Indian-produced goods. She admitted to displaying items at the Northstar Gift Shop in a way that misled customers, and for doing so willfully. Carandang runs the shop with her husband Bernard Carandang.

Out-of-state customers’ complaints on Facebook were the first signal for federal authorities of wrongdoing by Carandang, according to an affidavit by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jack S. Schmidt. In May 2014, the customers alleged they bought a carving that Carandang told them was “Alaskan Eskimo” made, then later sent them a certificate of authenticity for an “Alaskan Artist” made craft. The tourists paid $799 for the piece.

An undercover U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent investigated the complaint by conducting interviews and eventually going undercover to make a similar purchase. The agent purchased a carving in June 2015 known to be made by a non-Native artist — Carandang told the agent it was the handiwork of a Tlingit/Haida Native.

[Juneau woman heads to trial in Native art scam case]

As a result of the plea deal, Carandang agreed to serve five years of probation, pay a $4,000 fine and make an additional $4,000 donation to the Indian Arts and Crafts Board. She is also supposed to distribute a public apology, post signs in her store about the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, implement an employee training program about the act and, finally, always keep Native and non-Native items in her store clearly separated.

Carandang is the second downtown Juneau store owner accused of lying about Native artwork this year, and also the second to plead guilty.

Juneau resident Vinod “Vinny” L. Sippy, 38, with the Diamond Island, Icy Strait, and Gemstone Heaven shops pleaded guilty in April to falsely presenting artwork as “Inuit Indian” made. Sippy settled his case with a plea deal similar to Carandang’s. His fine and donation were set at $3,500 each. The same public letter of apology, probation and store policies were included.

[2 Juneau shop owners tied to Native art scam]

The three other Southeast Alaskans facing similar charges from the federal government’s April investigation are Puerto Rican resident and Ketchikan business owner Gabriel T. Karim, 33, Skagway resident and business owner Rosemary V. Libert, 56, and Libert’s seasonal employee, Judy M. Gengler, 65. All three pleaded not guilty in May, but all of their upcoming court dates have been vacated, indicating a change in their pleas. Karim’s is the only defense attorney to actually enter a change of plea motion, while Libert and Gengler have a status conference scheduled for June 22.

• Contact reporter Paula Ann Solis at 523-2272 or paula.solis@juneauempire.com.

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