TAMPA — Arswaya Ralph had never been convicted of a crime until she discovered tax refund fraud. Now, at 33, she is a mother headed to federal prison.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Mary S. Scriven sentenced Ralph to two years and four months, plus probation, for siphoning $273,254 from the federal Treasury by filing phony returns using stolen identities.
Ralph, a slender woman with a sleek cap of short dark hair, dabbed at her eyes before the hearing began and then waited somberly until invited to speak.
She started with a public apology — to the judge, to the court, to her mother, to her children and to the victims.
The civilian victims did not attend. The IRS, of course, did.
"I'm a single mother," Ralph explained. "I was going through a lot of hard times. At the time, my son just had surgery and I had to stop working due to my son having surgery and we were about to be evicted, which caused me to do things I wouldn't normally do."
Yet again, she apologized.
Then the judge fired back.
"How does that square, Ms. Ralph, with the nature of your purchases?" Scriven asked. "You weren't purchasing food and diapers, you were purchasing luxury items like Gucci bags and pink weapons and 42-inch flat-screen TVs. How is that related to your son's recuperation?"
Ralph had admitted that she used fraudulent tax money to buy a 2010 Buick LaCrosse. When investigators searched her home on June 2, 2011, they also found marijuana, which triggered state court charges.
They seized Gucci sunglasses, Gucci luggage, Gucci gift cards, a second television, four computers, a Sony video camera, a Betsey Johnson handbag and a pink Kahr Arms firearm.
"The defendant was living the high life on other people's hard-earned money," assistant U.S. attorney Sara C. Sweeney said.
The government thinks Ralph had plenty of company, including Danielle Denson, 27, who awaits trial or a plea deal. Prosecutors allege that Denson collected $1.6 million in fraudulent refunds, spending some of the money on plastic surgery and a $300 thong from Gucci.
Ralph, in a plea agreement, admitted to attending and hosting "drop parties," where people gathered to file the fake returns. Sweeney said Ralph and Denson attended the same party.
On a laptop computer in Ralph's trunk, investigators found evidence of 65 filed returns totaling $467,781. The returns didn't all fly. The actual loss was $273,254, Sweeney told the judge. The government recovered about $105,000 of that, Sweeney said.
The recaptured money came from debit cards seized at Ralph's home, according to William Daniels, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa.
The victims' names and Social Security numbers were found in one of Ralph's ledgers.
The government did not disclose how Ralph obtained the stolen identities. In the past five years, she has worked at both a medical office and a collection agency, records show.
"Certainly if she had worked at those types of businesses or facilities, she would have had access to that type of information," said John Joyce, special agent in charge of the Secret Service's Tampa office, which investigated along with the Tampa Police Department and IRS-Criminal Investigations.
Ralph's prison term will be followed by two years of supervised release. She was ordered to pay half of her future monthly earnings toward $167,974 restitution. At the judge's suggested initial rate of $300 a month, that would take about 47 years.
Judge Scriven decided that a woman with a law-abiding history had suffered a "lapse in judgment."
Ralph could have faced nearly six years in prison, but prosecutors agreed to a lesser sentence because she accepted responsibility. It helped that she had no prior convictions. (The marijuana charge is pending.) And, as part of the plea, she agreed to assist in the prosecution of others.
The sentence is similar to that of Patricia Shaw, given two years in January for $126,000 in fraudulent returns.
Conversely, in December, Shawntrece Sims, 32, got nine years amid evidence she collected $672,887 in refunds and kept filing phony claims even while she was supposed to be assisting investigators.
Charges against 15 other suspects were announced last week by IRS-CI and Tampa police.
Business operators are also on the defense.
Used car dealer Russell B. Simmons Jr. is scheduled to go to federal trial Nov. 5, accused of accepting fraudulent refund checks from customers, pocketing the change and filing fake returns of his own. Investigators had searched his dealership last year on the eve of announcing results of a tax fraud investigation called "Operation Rainmaker."
And, on Monday, the multi-agency effort to curb tax fraud in the bay area logged another collateral win.
Reem Faria, 37, who had prior convictions for dealing in stolen property and cocaine possession, drew a 34-month sentence for being a felon in possession of a firearm. The gun turned up when police searched his business, Suit World, as part of the tax inquiry.
Stolen identity refund fraud is not new, but the volume has soared, especially in Tampa, where thieves collected an estimated $468 million last year.
Staff writer Patty Ryan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3382.