Crime & Courts
Tampa auto dealer gets 15 years in huge tax fraud case
TAMPA - A car dealer who stole $9 million from federal taxpayers and became an example in Washington of frustrations in the fight against tax fraud told a judge Monday he did it all for his family. Authorities say Russell B. Simmons Jr., 42, owner of Simmons Auto Sales on North 34th Street, used the proceeds of tax fraud to buy a $60,000 Bentley coupe and tens of thousands of dollars in diamond jewelry. Still, Simmons said, the crime didn’t represent who he is as a man. He was going through a bitter divorce and had lost everything, he said, weeping.“It just took a lot out of me as a man, and I was wrong. I admit it. 100 percent wrong. I got caught up.” But U.S. District Judge James D. Whittemore wasn’t buying it. What Simmons did, the judge said, was “a calculated fraud.” It was part of an explosion in tax refund fraud using stolen identities that, according to the judge, has put Tampa on the map. And for that, Whittemore sentenced Simmons to 15 years in federal prison, nearly the maximum sentence under federal guidelines. “The numbers,” Whittemore said, “are staggering.” According to testimony from agents for the Secret Service and the IRS, Simmons tried to steal $8.9 million by filing more than 600 fraudulent tax returns. The IRS rejected more than $5.5 million worth of refunds but approved $3.4 million. Other refunds were stopped, either by the online tax filing company TurboTax or through other means. In the end, Simmons obtained $1.8 million in fraudulent refunds. Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Riedel said Simmons targeted elderly victims, many born in the 1910s and 1920s. “These were the perfect victims,” Riedel said, because they didn’t need to file tax returns and detection by the IRS was less likely. One victim interviewed by the IRS was blind. Simmons and defense lawyer Steve Crawford presented testimony from his pastor, Craig Holloway of Triumph and Life Family Ministries, who described Simmons as “a good man (who) just got caught up in everything that was going on.” A friend, Adrian Johnson, said the defendant appeared in court nine years ago as an employer supporting Johnson when Johnson was before Whittemore on drug charges. Johnson implored the judge to give Simmons a break, a chance to serve the community, as the judge did for Johnson nine years ago. “He has a huge heart,” Johnson said. “He helps people. He can serve if given the opportunity to mentor boys and girls. I know about drops (tax fraud.) About 90 percent is in urban areas where this man can tell boys and girls, don’t do it.” The defendant apologized profusely. “My father raised me to be a responsible person,” he said. “I let him down.” He said he has a three-week-old son who just got out of intensive care. “The thought of me not being there for him is crushing.” Riedel dismissed the defendant’s claims that he was trying to help his family, noting he had $108,000 worth of gold and diamond-encrusted jewelry and the Bentley. “This is a case of greed,” she said. “It went far in excess of where he could feed and clothe his children.” Whittemore agreed. “This is a very, very serious offense,” the judge said. “It shows a callous disregard of our people, our government, the financial structure on which it stands.” “What were you thinking,” Whittemore asked Simmons, “when you were driving around in a Bentley?” Simmons tried to answer, but the judge wouldn’t allow it. “Gold jewelry, Rolex watches, those were not for your family.” Simmons was among a number of business owners arrested in the joint investigation in 2011, initially on state identity theft and credit card fraud charges after Secret Service agents searched his business. However, the charges were dismissed because of the pending federal investigation, and Simmons was allowed to go free. As the case wore on, Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor went public with her irritation at the slow pace of the investigation into the tax fraud scourge spreading among street criminals. Authorities say hundreds of millions of dollars in bogus income tax returns have been processed from the Tampa area alone. “We have an individual that we know did in the ballpark of $9 million in tax fraud,” Castor said at one point. “He was arrested and charged in September. And there's no reason for us to believe that he's slowed down at all.” Then a year ago, Tampa Detective Sal Augeri testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee in Washington about tax refund fraud and described the Simmons case without naming him. “We have no reason to believe he has stopped committing this crime,” Augeri said then.