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Feds charge 24 IRS workers in TN with theft

10:32 PM, Apr 17, 2013   |    comments
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By Brian Haas / The Tennessean

First it was the families of dead people and state employees. Now, authorities say Internal Revenue Service employees in Tennessee were stealing unemployment and other benefits while fully employed.

On Thursday, 13 of those employees were indicted on federal charges that they lied to get unemployment, food stamps, welfare and housing vouchers. An additional 11 have been indicted on state charges of theft greater than $1,000.

In all, authorities say the workers improperly received more than $250,000 in government benefits.

"You've got these employees that are taking advantage of the system that are so intimate with it by virtue of their jobs," said Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirech, whose office is handling the state prosecutions. "It's doubly frustrating."

The investigation originated with the U.S. Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, a Treasury Department agency that is responsible for oversight of the IRS. The agency in recent years has been focusing specifically on IRS employees who illegally draw government benefits as part of what they call "Operation Double Dip."

On Monday, for example, federal prosecutors in Indianapolis announced convictions of four former IRS employees in a similar scheme. In that case, employees would properly collect unemployment while furloughed, but failed to report when they returned to work, which should have cut off benefits.

Thursday's indictments accuse the 24 employees of fraudulently obtaining those benefits going as far back as 2006 and as recently as Dec. 31, 2012.

"According to the allegations in the indictment, while these IRS employees were supposed to be serving the public, they were instead brazenly stealing from law-abiding American taxpayers," U.S. Attorney Edward L. Stanton III, who oversees federal prosecutions in West Tennessee, said in a statement.

News follows audit

The indictments come just weeks after a state audit found more than $73 million in overpayments were made by the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development over the past several years. That audit turned up 24 active state employees who received more than $126,000 in unemployment benefits and seven dead people who were paid out $12,387. The state said the majority of those cases involved fraud.

Thursday's indictments were not directly connected to the state audit, said Jeff Hentschel, spokesman for the state labor department. He said federal investigators actually enlisted the state's help in investigating the fraud in May 2011.

"The agency considers combating and preventing fraudulent overpayments a top priority, as well as recouping improper payments resulting from fraud," Hentschel said. "We will continue to enlist the help of agencies like the OIG to assist in this effort."

Prosecutors identified the 13 indicted in federal court as: Angela Allison, 37; Jessica Davis, 35; Serina Gaither, 37; Teresa Jenkins, 46; Joanne Johnson, 46; Cynthia McKinney, 38; Angela Scales, 28; Dorothy Simmons, 35; Mary Weeks, 61; Evonna Yarbrough, 42, all of Memphis, along with Gale Baker, 54, of Cordova; Shari House, 45, of Jackson, and Talaria Mitchell, 35, of Southaven, Miss.

Each has been charged with multiple counts of false statements, in violation of Section 1001 of Title 18 of the United States Code. A conviction under that statute can result in up to five years in prison.

Eleven other former and current IRS employees were charged by the District Attorney General's Office with theft of property over $1,000, a class D felony.

The 11 charged in state court are identified as: Raya Banks, 47; Clara Cannon, 61; Alma Childers, 64; Cathryn Fair, 50; Robert Graves, 60; Mechell Hampton, 35; Nicole Nickson, 39; Diane Malone, 56; Myra Thompson, 32; Katina Thurman, 39, and Pamela Williams, 47, all of Memphis.

'You would expect better,' DA says

Weirich said cases like these can erode public trust in government workers.

"Both current and former employees, they were just bilking money from the government, from the state and the federal government - housing, unemployment, food stamps, welfare, all of that," she said. "You would expect better from an IRS agent. We all expect better from all of our government employees."

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