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Grand jury indicts former Tampa police employee in tax fraud probe

TAMPA — A former Tampa Police Department employee surrendered Monday to face federal charges that she stole identities from law enforcement databases and conspired with others for five years to commit tax refund fraud.

Tonia Bright, 53, is the first police employee to be indicted in a fraud investigation made known after the April 2014 firing of veteran homicide Detective Eric Houston, who was also a target of the probe. He has neither been charged nor cleared.

Bright was a civilian community service officer for a department that aggressively went after tax refund fraud in a city that for years was overrun with it. Authorities allege she used crime-fighting tools such as the FBI's National Crime Information Center index to further the commission of crimes, dishing out names, dates of birth and Social Security numbers to a felon friend and others.

Bright appeared Monday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Jenkins and pleaded not guilty to nine counts of an indictment that was filed Wednesday but kept secret for days. It charges her with aggravated identity theft, obtaining information from a protected computer and wire fraud conspiracy.

The U.S. Attorney's Office alleges that she provided identities to longtime police informer Rita Girven, who already has pleaded guilty to aggravated identity theft and conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

Conspirators "shared in the proceeds," the indictment states, but prosecutors don't say how much they think Bright netted. She filed for bankruptcy protection in late 2011, midway through the alleged five-year conspiracy.

Girven admitted in a plea agreement to a $33,000 scheme, but her attorney told a judge in May that the government was trying to hold her accountable for an attempted Internal Revenue Service loss of $3.6 million.

And a search warrant affidavit recently filed by Tampa police Detective Sharla Canfield, who serves on an IRS task force, linked Girven to paid refunds totaling at least $386,479.

A tipster told investigators Girven would seek out older drivers, who are less likely to file tax returns, and then call Bright with tag numbers to obtain identities.

Bright worked at TPD for 31 years. She became a community service officer in 2007, after first completing an ethics in government course and working in crime prevention. In a 2013 evaluation, she received all "excellent" and "outstanding" marks.

She was suspended without pay on March 14, 2014, after TPD turned over results of an internal investigation to the U.S. Attorney's Office. She quietly retired in April.

That month, Houston was fired. He and his wife, LaJoyce Houston, are adoptive parents of one of Girven's children. LaJoyce Houston was charged in state court with food stamp fraud in 2013, but the state dropped its case, yielding to the ongoing federal investigation.

Girven is scheduled to be sentenced Nov. 20.

Contact Patty Ryan at pryan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3382.

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