Talent business owner indicted for wire fraud

A local gourmet food producer misappropriated more than $1 million from his now-defunct title company in New Hampshire, federal prosecutors allege.

Vinter's Kitchen owner Robert Steuk is expected to plead guilty Monday to wire fraud charges related to the $1.3 million prosecutors say the disbarred attorney took from his former business, Warranty Title Co. Inc., said Donald Feith, assistant U. S. attorney.

Steuk faces a single count of wire fraud, which carries a statutory penalty of up to 20 years in federal prison. He entered a not guilty plea at his indictment. But Steuk's attorney filed a change of plea petition for Monday's final pretrial hearing date, Feith said.

"If he were to enter a plea of guilty, his sentence would almost certainly be less than the statute," Feith said, adding conditions of parole would undoubtedly prohibit Steuk's involvement in any business that involved finances.

Billed as "adult" jams and jellies, Vintner's Kitchen in Talent produces a line of 20 wine and spice infused products.

When contacted by the Mail Tribune, Steuk, 61, confirmed he would be attending Monday's hearing in New Hampshire, but declined to comment on the case on the advice of his attorney, he said. His wife, Barbara Steuk, 61, also declined to comment.

Warranty Title abruptly closed its doors in August 2007 after Steuk's plan to siphon money from various escrow accounts collapsed along with the economy, said Feith.

"It was a Sisyphean effort," he said, referring to mythological king whom the gods punished by compelling Sisyphus to roll a huge boulder up a hill, only to have the rock roll back down.

"At the end of the day, he just reached critical mass," said Feith.

The title company was owned by Barbara Steuk, but Robert Steuk served as the chief operating officer of the company and directed day-to-day operations. Barbara Steuk has not been charged in this case, Feith said.

Robert Steuk is accused of illegally wiring at least 19 separate sums of third-party money ranging between $10,000 and $130,000 to accounts held by himself or family members in Southern Oregon. Most of the transfers exceeded $130,000, court papers show.

"The allegation in the indictment is that $1.3 million (was illegally transferred)," said Feith. "Mr. Steuk was going into escrow accounts and pulling out money. Some was to pay salaries to his wife and children."

At the time of the indictment, Robert Steuk's total earnings between the period of January 2005 to August 2007 were listed as $850,300 and Barbara Steuk's total earnings were $561,860 for the same period.

Payments were also made to Robert Steuk's children between 2004 and 2007. His daughter, Kristin Steuk, allegedly received $67,500. Son Robert L. Steuk II received $27,100, court records show.

Attempts to reach Robert Steuk's children were unsuccessful. Neither have been named in the indictment, Feith said.

Chicago Title, a Florida-based title insurer, has a civil case pending against Robert Steuk, alleging Steuk took between $450,000 and $1.7 million. Steuk admitted to diverting $450,000 from an escrow account to keep his company afloat, they allege. Chicago Title has received at least 40 claims from individuals who participated in closings handled by Warranty Title, court documents state.

Feith said he was unaware of the status of Chicago Title's lawsuit against Steuk. Calls to the company's attorneys were not returned.

The Vintner's Kitchen Web site show photos of the couple displaying their wares at recent food fairs such as the Rogue Creamery Festival, the Ashland Chocolate Festival and also at a benefit for the American Cancer Society in Medford. The couple were also featured in a Mail Tribune story in February.

Robert Steuk is described on the Web site as "chief bottle washer and comedian." Barbara Steuk is listed as the "center of culinary soul."

Sanne Specht is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. Reach her at 541-776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.

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