TAMPA — The city's tax fraud underworld took its biggest hit yet Monday.
A federal judge sent car dealer Russell Bruce Simmons Jr. to prison for 15 years, scolding him for exhibiting "callous disregard" for identity theft victims as he tried to obtain $8.9 million in fraudulent refunds from the IRS.
"The numbers are staggering," U.S. District Judge James D. Whittemore told Simmons, 42, former operator of Simmons Auto Sales in East Tampa.
Not only did Simmons make phony tax claims, tricking the IRS out of $1.8 million, he also helped other identity thieves by negotiating their fraudulent IRS checks and tax refund debit cards at his auto dealership, the government learned.
At the height of the scam, Simmons owned a 2005 Bentley and amassed a cache of gold and gems, including a pendant that spelled out his initials in 703 diamonds and a bracelet that glittered with 2,420 diamonds.
He walked into court Monday wearing a jewel in his left ear, but the bling vanished when he addressed the judge.
Simmons sobbed and mumbled through his statement. He expressed sorrow for letting his father down and said he was crushed at the thought of not being there for a son born prematurely just three weeks ago.
Prosecutor Mandy Reidel pushed back at suggestions by character witnesses that Simmons was simply looking out for his family when he began filing false tax claims. She reminded the judge about all the valuables found with him.
"This is a case of greed," she said, and the judge later agreed, telling Simmons, "Those were not for your family. Those were for you."
Whittemore heard from a minister, from Simmons' father and from another car dealer who once got a break from the judge on drug charges.
Craig Holloway, senior pastor of Triumphant Life Family Ministries, called Simmons compassionate and likened his trouble to the biblical story of King David and Bathsheba, whose marriage followed an illicit affair.
"I feel we have a good man here who had a lapse in judgment," Holloway said. "He is not a lifelong criminal," Holloway said. "This is not his lifestyle."
Nor was he "a spring chicken," Whittemore soon noted, considering a criminal history that included convictions for cocaine possession, cocaine delivery, grand theft, conspiracy to commit racketeering.
Simmons had kept a clean record for 15 years. The judge acknowledged that but said the fraud "outweighed" any good Simmons may have accomplished in the years since.
The criminal record factored into sentencing, as did the high dollar amount of the attempted fraud and the fact that some victims were elderly.
Defense attorney Stephen Crawford tried, as the sentencing hearing began, to pluck away some of the factors that enhanced the penalty: Maybe the victims weren't all old. Maybe the government was the only victim. Maybe someone else at the car lot used Simmons' computer, driving the intended loss up to $8.9 million.
The judge didn't budge.
"Mr. Crawford, uphill battle?" Whittemore asked.
"It is," Crawford answered.
Simmons was arrested on a 32-count indictment in May that accused him of wire fraud, false claims against the government, theft of government property and aggravated identity theft. He pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud and one count of aggravated identity theft.
The Secret Service, Tampa Police Department and IRS-Criminal Investigations all had a hand in the investigation.
The 15-year sentence was the most a defendant has received in a Tampa Bay area stolen identity refund fraud case, said Amy Filjones, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office.
In Jacksonville, a defendant was sentenced to 22 years.
Attorney Crawford said he was disappointed, but not surprised. "There's been a lot of publicity about tax fraud and we can certainly understand the court's need to want to make a statement," he said.
Patty Ryan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3382.