TAMPA — A former employee of the Tampa Housing Authority is under federal indictment, accused of using the public agency's computers and Internet service to file fraudulent claims for federal tax refunds.
Leah Lang, 43, arrested Friday, worked for the Housing Authority for five years, from 2005 to 2009, based in a community relations office at Robles Park Village.
The government alleges that she conspired with others in 2009 and submitted six false tax refund claims totaling $30,852.60. The grand jury indictment, issued in August but kept sealed until recently, does not name anyone else. The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to provide further details.
The refunds were for sums higher than what filers were owed by the IRS. They went into a bank account Lang opened in January 2009.
She was not charged with identity theft. The indictment's unusual wording appears to leave open the possibility of interaction between her, the alleged coconspirators and the legitimate owners of the identities used to file.
She and others "would and did refuse to provide these funds to the taxpayers in whose names the defendant and her coconspirators had submitted false income tax returns," the document states.
Lang pleaded not guilty Friday in U.S. District Court before Magistrate Judge Anthony E. Porcelli and was detained pending trial.
"Ms. Lang maintains her innocence," said Howard C. Anderson, a federal public defender who represented her at the hearing.
Lang's appearance in federal court interrupted a county jail sentence.
She was serving six months in Hillsborough for the February theft of $4,452 worth of clothing from Dillard's at International Plaza. Six months ago, the Collier County Sheriff's Office charged her with identity fraud and grand theft. Four months ago, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office charged her with larceny.
In her 20s, Lang served three prison sentences in Florida, with convictions for robbery, grand theft and aggravated battery.
All three sentences predate her employment at the Housing Authority. State records show 18 arrests before her employment and seven arrests afterward, with no arrests during her five years on the job at Robles Park.
Robles Park is a public housing complex in the heart of Tampa, west of Interstate 275 and south of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
One unit had been converted into a Housing Authority office, and that's where Lang worked. Her job was to connect residents to social services, said Lillian Stringer, public relations director for the Housing Authority. Lang would have been expected to tell families about public benefits, pass along job referrals and help children with homework.
"Filing tax returns was definitely not a part of what she was supposed to be doing over there," Stringer said.
The Tampa Bay Times attempted to reach Housing Authority president and CEO Jerome Ryans to discuss the federal charges against Lang. He asked Stringer to respond to the inquiry and she did.
She said the agency knew little about the IRS' interest in Lang or the Robles Park community relations office.
"Last summer the IRS came over there and they took all of the computers from that center and said they were going to sweep them, and they brought all of the computers back and did not share any additional information," Stringer said. "That's all we know."
She could not recall anyone else working with Lang at the site.
The agency cooperated with investigators, she said.
"We have over 300 employees. It's impossible for even Jerome to know what a person's doing on a day-to-day basis on computers," she said.
It's unclear whether Lang's criminal history was considered when she was hired. When the Times attempted to pose that question later Friday afternoon, neither Ryans nor Stringer could be reached for comment.
The Housing Authority's website currently advertises a job opening for a receptionist, with a starting pay of $17,809 a year. It warns that applicants will need to pass a background screening.
News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Staff writer Patty Ryan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3382.