TAMPA — The check was never in the mail.
A Tampa truck driver on Wednesday pleaded guilty for his part in a two-year scheme to fool the U.S. Postal Service into delivering 5.6 million pieces of bulk mail without paying a penny of postage.
Postage due: $1.3 million.
Richard Nieves, 39, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and faces up to five years in prison. Prosecutors said Nieves acted at the behest of Galal Ramadan, 61, owner of G.R. Marketing & Graphic Design in Tampa.
Nieves is cooperating with federal prosecutors, according to his plea agreement, and no sentencing date has been set.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Wilson asked Nieves, "It's not just you. Mr. Ramadan is the guy behind it?"
"Yes," Nieves said.
But Ramadan has not been charged and denies wrongdoing.
"He did this by himself," Ramadan said in a brief interview. "I don't want to be involved in anything like that."
Prosecutors say Ramadan's customers paid his company for the production of bulk mail items, including postage at a discounted, bulk rate offered by the Postal Service. The rate averaged between 23 and 24 cents per item.
Prosecutors declined to identify Ramadan's customers or the content of the mailings.
Ramadan, prosecutors say, should have deposited that money in a postal account.
But from 2005 to 2007, "the conspirators exploited certain vulnerabilities to send the mailings without ever paying the postage," Nieves' plea agreement states.
Normally, a company such as G.R. Marketing would produce a "Postage Statement" with each bulk mailing being reviewed by a postal clerk who verifies the number of items to be mailed and the total postage due.
Prosecutors say the clerk then withdraws the postage from the prepaid account and attaches a "Release to Operations" tag onto a pallet carrying the bulk mail. That tag signifies to postal workers who process the mail that postage is paid and the mail cleared for delivery.
But prosecutors say Nieves and Ramadan skipped that step.
Instead, they contend, Nieves brought the bulk mail by truck to a postal processing center on W Spruce Street in Tampa with a counterfeit or stolen "Release to Operations" tag already attached.
Other times, bulk items without postage paid were commingled with other mailings that already had postage properly charged, prosecutors say.
Ramadan paid Nieves more than $450,000 for his part in the scheme, according to his plea agreement. Nieves also pleaded guilty to accepting $100,000 in Social Security disability benefits for which he did not qualify.
Authorities found illicit "Release to Operations" tags taped to the inside of Nieves' truck when they executed a search warrant in July 2007, records show.
Court records do not explain how postal officials uncovered the fraud. A Postal Service spokesperson could not be reached for comment.
Ramadan's company still advertises its bulk mail services on a website which says, "Our mail programs … are designed to drive your product."
William R. Levesque can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3432.