TAMPA - Although he made less than $20,000 in 2016, Ramon Christopher Blanchett managed to get a $980,000 refund from the Internal Revenue Service. So for the 2017 and 2018 tax years, he claimed he was owed hefty refunds then, too - a total of $492,211.
Those were among the new details revealed Tuesday as the part-time community college student pleaded guilty to the theft of government funds. He faces up to 10 years in prison for what his public defender, Paul Downing, called a "highly unusual'' case.
"I can’t believe they sent the check in the first place,'' Downing said of the IRS. "Wasn’t there any oversight?''
Word of the whopping refund first came in January when the government filed a civil forfeiture action after seizing $919,421 from Blanchett’s account and a 2016 Lexus RC350 he had bought with part of the ill-gotten funds. But it was not until a few weeks ago that he was formally accused of a felony.
The Lexus gone, Blanchett took the bus from his East Tampa apartment, where he lives with his mother, to the federal courthouse downtown. He arrived an hour early, dapperly dressed in a navy blue jacket, white shirt, white slacks and yellow and blue tie.
"I complimented him,'' Downing said. "He looked better than a lot of my clients.''
Blanchett, 29, politely answered "yes, sir'' and "yes, your honor''' as Magistrate Judge Anthony E. Porcelli made sure he understood the consequences of a guilty plea. Then prosecutor Rachelle Bedke read aloud the specifics of his crime:
In early 2017, Blanchett electronically filed his 2016 tax return claiming $18,497 in wage income; $47,357 in deductions; and an income tax withholding credit of $1 million. He attached a W-2 from a Tampa nursing home that included "fictitious'' information about his wages and the amount of taxes withhheld. Based on those figures, Blanchett claimed a $1 million refund and asked that $20,000 be applied to his 2017 estimated tax.
In April 2017, the IRS mailed Blanchett the $980,000 refund check, which he deposited into a SunTrust account. The bank reported the transaction to the IRS, closed Blanchett’s account and put the check in its vault pending IRS verification.
In April 2018, Blanchett electronically filed his 2017 tax return claiming $16,790 in wages and an income tax withholding credit of $7,115. Based on the figures on three fictitious W-2 forms, he said he was due a refund of $26,477.
In May 2018 — a year after the IRS issued the $980,000 refund — SunTrust sent Blanchett the check it had been holding. He exchanged it for a regular check that he put in an account at Grow Financial Credit Union, saying the funds came from an inheritance he received from his father’s estate. He bought the 2016 Lexus for $51,617.
In August 2018, a federal magistrate in Tampa authorized IRS agents to seize the Lexus and the money still in the account. A month later, Blanchett showed up at the IRS office in Tampa for an appointment he had made with its taxpayer Assistance Center. At that time, the center alerted IRS investigators that he was the subject of a criminal investigation regarding the $980,000 refund.
Last December, investigators personally served Blanchett with a letter advising him that he was suspected of filing false returns, money laundering and related offenses. Yet in February, he electronically filed his 2018 return showing $980,000 in wage income and a tax withholding credit of $800,000. He claimed he was due a refund of $465,734.
"In fact, the defendant had not received proceeds from an inheritance,'' Bedke read. "Moreover, the defendant did not make enough wages to have any income tax withheld, and the amount of tax withheld reported on his tax returns were false. In short, the defendant knew he was not entitled to a tax refund for the tax years 2016, 2017 or 2018.''
No evidence was presented to show that Blanchett received any refund except the $980,000. As part of his plea agreement, he will make $59,768 in restitution to the IRS plus pay all taxes, interest and penalties owed for the three tax years. Judge James Moody will sentence him at a date to be determined; prosecutors have recommended a lesser penalty than 10 years because of his cooperation and acceptance of responsibility.
Blanchett, released on a signature bond, rode the bus home, then went to the library at Hillsborough Community College’s Ybor City campus, where he is taking a broadcast course. He said he also has a commercial driver’s license, works as landscaper and freelance DJ, and is training to become a licensed tattoo artist.
Despite his guilty plea, Blanchett said in an email to a reporter that he didn’t intend to defraud the IRS.
"I felt like I earned the funds due to various jobs,'' he said. "THE MISTAKE WAS ON THEIR PART NOT MINE.''
His mother, Maxine, calls Blanchett a "good boy,’' but regrets that he succumbed to the temptation to spend part of the refund check.
“I told him to tear it up,'' she said, ''because something was not right.''