TAMPA — A probation officer for Florida's Department of Juvenile Justice has been federally charged in a conspiracy to use the identities of minors on probation to collect fraudulently obtained income tax refunds.
Corey A. Coley Sr., the officer, and Albert E. Moore Jr., a Walmart employee, were arrested and appeared Thursday in U.S. District Court in Tampa.
Almost simultaneously, the state fired Coley, and department Secretary Wansley Walters called the alleged mining of sensitive identity information "shameful" and "a blatant betrayal of trust."
The scheme, described in court records, married the stolen identities of living delinquents to borrowed identities of dead adults.
The juvenile names were used to order reloadable debit cards from banks. But the IRS rejected tax claims on kids. So a third conspirator combed the Internet to find dead people with the same names and used their identifiers to request refunds. The refunds were deposited onto the debit cards, the records show.
Last year, more than 200 returns seeking $1.4 million in refunds were filed from the address of a woman who told authorities she conspired with Coley and Moore. Another $250,000 in claims came from an Internet address assigned to Moore's residence.
Coley, 36, had been a juvenile probation officer in Hillsborough County since 2001.
He got paid $33,309 a year to review delinquency complaints, recommend detention or release, develop case plans and, in an array of ways, keep tabs on the progress of juveniles in trouble.
As part of his job, he had access to the state's primary repository for delinquency information, a database that includes the names, dates of birth and Social Security numbers of current and former juvenile defendants, said Meghan Speakes Collins, communications director for the department.
Thousands of workers must access the system to do their jobs, she said.
"It's really one of those bad egg situations," she said of Coley.
In the past five years, the agency has taken steps to protect identity information, she said. Casual users might see only partial Social Security numbers. A record is created when someone views the full number, perhaps to qualify an offender for Medicaid.
Authorities believe Coley accessed a screen showing complete Social Security numbers from a laptop in a way that left little trail.
Coley had no disciplinary record, she said, and state records show no prior arrests.
The investigation began in September with a tip to the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office. Cpl. Bruce Crumpler took it to the inspector general for Juvenile Justice. And then IRS-Criminal Investigations got involved.
By October, the department had fixed its soft spot. In the months that followed, Coley was kept on the job but his access to the database was cut off, the spokeswoman said.
In an affidavit in the 12-page criminal complaint, IRS-CI Special Agent John Maguire described the findings.
He identified the third conspirator as Mattie Philon, who is not charged though her admissions to investigators are repeatedly referenced in the document.
Maguire wrote of Philon's assistance to the Sheriff's Office, which recorded conversations between her and Moore in mid September and October. He was caught on video filing returns.
"Remember, it's not fraudulent unless somebody say it's fraudulent," Moore told Philon, according to the affidavit.
IRS translation: Children or dead people won't complain.
In several ways, investigators also linked Coley. Debit cards were sent to his address. Money showed up in his bank account. His cell phone and home phone were used to check on the status of returns — 10 times in the case of one return, the records show.
"We have seen perpetrators of tax fraud from nearly every walk of life," said Jim Robnett, special agent in charge of IRS-CI in Tampa, "including those in positions of public trust."
News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Patty Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3382.