TAMPA — Many who risked it all to steal from the U.S. Treasury in Tampa's wave of identity theft and tax refund fraud had little to lose from the start.
Jeanette Hevel was different.
Rather than file phony claims, the veteran Tampa police detective stole checks that had been seized in police investigations. She admitted in court Tuesday to the theft of $88,505 in Treasury tax checks from a Tampa Police Department evidence room, and her formal plea agreement listed other checks totaling $13,007.
But she now stands to lose far more than she gained. At risk is a pension worth $2,898 a month and about $500,000 in deferred benefits, according to pension board records and her attorney.
Hevel, 47, had been a public employee for about 27 years in an array of law enforcement roles.
She qualified to collect a pension long before she was fired last year amid the investigation that led to federal charges. She was in the Deferred Retirement Option Program, which allows workers to stay on the job and collect a paycheck while pension benefits are paid but invested.
In court, Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo warned her that benefits might be imperiled by her admission of guilt to a felony.
Later in the day, her attorney predicted that she will lose all the money.
"This is a stark reminder that the collateral consequences of a criminal conviction are sometimes almost as serious as the criminal conviction itself," attorney Mark O'Brien said.
A woman Hevel's age might expect to live 35 more years, according to Social Security tables. If so, under other circumstances, she might have drawn about $1.2 million from the pension, plus the deferred amount.
Tampa Fire and Police Pension Fund board chairman Mark Bogush confirmed that Hevel's guilty plea to theft of government property will in all likelihood trigger a forfeiture review.
"It has to do with breach of public trust," he said. "If you breach the public trust and steal, it doesn't matter how much it is. That's something we look into automatically."
Hevel also faces a prison sentence. The crime is punishable by up to 10 years. She was allowed to remain free on a personal signature bond pending sentencing, which hasn't yet been scheduled.
In her plea agreement, Hevel admitted to taking the tax checks, a bank check for $3,007 and 21 money orders worth $10,000.
She acknowledged tapping into an internal Tampa Police Department record-keeping system called Versadex to search for Treasury checks and money orders held in evidence.
"Ms. Hevel is taking time to evaluate her life and figure out why she did what she did," her attorney said. "She is not a bad person. Ms. Hevel is actually a very good person who made a bad mistake."
She signed the agreement in February, the same month police informer Rita Girven agreed to plead guilty in a scheme to file fraudulent refund claims using identities stolen from a state drivers database. Girven's sentencing is June 12.
Authorities have disclosed no link between the two cases — or between Hevel and former Detective Eric Houston, fired last year amid a federal investigation that has yet to see him charged.
Contact Patty Ryan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3382.