TAMPA — It was 2011 when city police first noticed drug dealers retreating from street corners and honing their skills with debit cards, ledgers and laptop computers.
It was 2012 when a detective testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee about an epidemic of stolen identity tax refund fraud in Tampa. Federal, state and local law enforcement rallied.
But while all that was happening, a Tampa Police Department informer, a civilian police employee, a veteran detective and his sergeant wife were only making the problem worse — by playing a role in such crimes.
In federal court Wednesday, the last of the four, LaJoyce Houston, pleaded guilty to receiving stolen government property, admitting that tax fraud money had paid off her Target charge card.
Houston, 50, had been scheduled to go to trial next month on more than a dozen charges. The most serious, money laundering, carried a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. Another charge, aggravated identity theft, carried a mandatory two consecutive years.
The government agreed to drop those charges and others in exchange for her guilty plea to the lone surviving count, which carries up to 10 years.
"I think you should expect that you're going to receive some term of incarceration in this case," U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas McCoun told Houston during an afternoon court hearing. "You need to be going into this with your eyes wide open."
She acknowledged in her plea agreement that she received goods, services, money orders and cash through debit cards that were tied to accounts loaded with funds from fraudulently obtained tax refunds.
The tax returns were filed, and the money was collected, by Rita Girven, a former police informer who was close with Houston and her husband, former Tampa police Detective Eric Houston.
The Houstons were accused in 2015 of mining police databases for names, dates of birth and Social Security numbers, which prosecutors said they shared with Girven.
Eric Houston admitted in March to a single charge of receiving stolen government property. In exchange, the rest of the charges against him were dropped. He is expected to be sentenced this fall.
LaJoyce Houston's plea agreement states that a total of $284,490 from fraudulent tax returns were placed in bank accounts from which the Houstons received money. The Houstons received benefits from the accounts, which ranged between $22,660 and $43,926.
An example cited in the court document concerns a Target retail store credit card in LaJoyce Houston's name. In early 2011, the card had accumulated a balance of more than $4,000.
In March of that year, Girven visited a Target store near the Houstons' home and used a debit card to pay off most of LaJoyce Houston's credit balance, according to the agreement. The debit card was connected to an account at Fifth Third Bank, which held the proceeds of eight fraudulently obtained federal tax refunds.
LaJoyce Houston knew the money to pay down the balance was the result of tax refund fraud, according to the agreement.
Girven is serving a 12-year prison sentence for the scheme, which also ensnared Tonia Bright, a former TPD civilian employee. Bright later pleaded guilty to providing Girven with information from a protected police computer and was sentenced to two years in prison.
The Houstons committed their crimes in 2011 and 2012, court records state. They occurred in a city that had been under siege by people claiming phony refunds at every turn. Innocent taxpayers were frustrated in their efforts to claim legitimate refunds.
In 2012, then-Tampa police Detective Sal Augeri testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee about the explosion of tax refund fraud in Tampa. Street criminals filing online used stolen Social Security numbers.
Nationally, such fraud cost the government more than $5 billion in 2011, a federal watchdog agency estimated.
LaJoyce Houston was fired from the Police Department in 2013, initially accused of using Girven's food stamps to buy groceries at Walmart. That charge, filed in state court, was later dismissed.
But in the interim, Eric Houston was also fired. The once-respected homicide detective's name had surfaced in the tax fraud investigation. He was dismissed after then-Chief Jane Castor became aware of a federal grand jury's investigation of the matter.
Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.