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Former Tampa police informer, ex-officer admit roles in separate tax scams

Rita Girven, posing with Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn in this photo from her Facebook page, signed a federal plea agreement Feb. 19, made public Thursday, in which she admits to a role in a $33,002 scheme to collect tax refunds using the stolen names of others.
Published Feb. 27, 2015

TAMPA — A longtime Tampa cop and a police informer both admit in signed plea deals to riding a wave of tax refund fraud, one saying she cashed U.S. Treasury checks held as evidence and the other saying she filed claims using stolen identities.

Federal charges against former Tampa Police Department Cpl. Jeanette Hevel and ex-informer Rita Girven were made public Thursday, the same day the plea paperwork was filed by the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Police Chief Jane Castor fired Hevel in 2013 amid signs of $1,900 in money order theft from a secured evidence room.

But federal scrutiny uncovered much more: Hevel admits in her plea deal to taking $91,511.86.

Most of those monies came from 13 fraudulently obtained IRS tax refund checks that police had confiscated from identity theft investigations. Castor, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment on the federal charges.

The Hevel and Girven cases appear unrelated, except that both schemes, as described, mined law enforcement databases for illegal riches at the expense of the federal Treasury.

Girven admits to conspiring with others to collect $33,002 by filing tax refund claims using stolen identities. If she pleads guilty as agreed to wire fraud conspiracy and aggravated identity theft, she could see up to 22 years in prison.

The identities, according to Girven's plea agreement, came from genealogy websites and from "one or more conspirators who had access to law enforcement databases."

A federal search warrant made public last spring suggested that the state's Driver and Vehicle Information Database may have been raided for identity theft.

Girven was charged as part of a probe — still ongoing — that also targeted fired Detective Eric Houston, his wife, fired TPD Sgt. LaJoyce Houston, and a former civilian employee, Tonia Bright.

Neither of the Houstons, nor Bright, has been federally charged, although LaJoyce Houston was a defendant in a 2013 state court food stamp fraud case that was dropped in the shadow of the federal investigation.

The Houstons knew Girven and had adopted a child of hers.

Hevel, in contrast to Girven, described getting in on tax fraud after someone else had already tricked the IRS.

A former officer of the year who worked for TPD for more than two decades, she had risen to corporal in the criminal intelligence bureau. Her duties include review of identity theft allegations, the plea paper states.

She admits to tapping into the TPD's own internal record-keeping system, called Versadex, to search for Treasury checks and money orders held in evidence. She used her corporal status to "check out" that evidence, the court record states.

Instead of returning the checks, she converted them to cash, she admits.

The theft went unnoticed until the IRS came knocking. That prompted an investigation that led to Hevel's firing. She was initially charged in state court but that case went dormant.

She faces up to 10 years in federal prison if she follows through on her agreement to plead guilty to theft of government property.

Her attorney, Mark O'Brien, said Hevel had long served as a police officer "with honor, distinction and bravery."

"A temporary lapse in judgment cost Ms. Hevel her career and now it may cost Ms. Hevel her freedom," he said. "She accepts this possibility and only prays that when this time comes, she is not judged on a small fraction of her life but instead on the totality of her life."

Times staff writers Dan Sullivan and Anna M. Phillips contributed to this report. Contact Patty Ryan at pryan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3382.

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