If it was a bribe, it was too small, and if it was a tip, it was too big. Either way, it could cost Robert Paul Bossany as much as 14 years in prison.

The 37-year-old Prior Lake man on Thursday admitted that he helped a Chicago-area computer parts supplier defraud Best Buy Co. Inc. out of about $31 million. Bossany had worked at the electronics retailer from 2001 through last fall, when he was fired.

For his part in the scheme, Bossany told Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis, he got about $100,000 in cash, checks or gift cards that had been stuffed into magazines, compact discs or DVDs and shipped to his Prior Lake home.

Davis seemed incredulous. He asked Bossany if he had any offshore bank accounts. Bossany said he didn't. Davis asked if he knew how much the computer-parts company, known as the Chip Factory, was allegedly defrauding Best Buy.

Bossany said that, until 2007, he had no grasp of the size of the alleged fraud.

Davis then asked Bossany about a Harley-Davidson motorcycle that he had bought from Russell Cole, the Chip Factory's president. Bossany said that he had written Cole a check for $10,000, but that it was never cashed.

"What's the book value on that Harley?" Davis asked.

"About $25,000," Bossany said.

Davis accepted Bossany's guilty plea to conspiracy and money-laundering charges. Federal guidelines indicate that he could face 7¼ to 15 years in prison when he's sentenced, plus fines of $15,000 to $150,000, and as long as three years on supervised release. He also faces mandatory restitution.

Bossany hopes to get a reduced sentence by cooperating with government investigators.

So far, he's the only defendant charged in the case, but federal investigators filed documents in late December seeking to seize some expensive real estate in the suburban Chicago area that they say was bought with the proceeds of the kickback scheme.

According to a sworn statement by U.S. Postal Inspector Barry Bouchie, the government suspects that Cole and his wife, Abby, who own the Chip Factory, used $2.8 million from the Best Buy fraud proceeds to buy land in Deerfield, Ill., tear down an existing house and build a custom residence. Chip Factory's revenue and the Coles' income came almost entirely through their dealings with Best Buy, Bouchie said.

Neither the Coles nor an attorney for them could not be reached for comment.

Assistant U.S. Attorney William Otteson, who prosecuted Bossany, had him confirm how the scheme worked: When Richfield-based Best Buy needed computer parts, it would notify an online procurement network called National Parts Inc.

Bait and switch

Suppliers, including the Chip Factory, had access to the network. If they had parts in stock, they would bid to fill Best Buy's order.

The procurement network helps Best Buy get parts as quickly and cheaply as possible, Otteson said. But according to Bossany's plea agreement, the Chip Factory would submit "fraudulently low" bids on parts that it often didn't have in stock. After it won a bid, the government says, Chip Factory would then submit fraudulent invoices to Best Buy through National Parts at prices "significantly higher than its bid price."

The government says that, from 2003 through 2007, Chip Factory invoiced Best Buy for $60 million in parts; just more than half of that involved fraud.

Bossany admitted to using his role as a vendor-relations manager to help Chip Factory conceal the phony invoices from his supervisors and co-workers, who were growing suspicious. He also admitted to supplying Chip Factory's officers with confidential and internal documents from Best Buy.

Tax returns for 2003 through 2007 show that the Coles claimed earnings of about $5.7 million, while Chip Factory reported profit of $8.1 million.

The case is being investigated by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the IRS Criminal Investigations Division and the FBI.

Dan Browning • 612-673-4493