TAMPA — The owner of a soul and seafood restaurant is facing more than 10 years in federal prison for filing dozens of false tax returns and stealing thousands of dollars, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Natalie Rene Panko, 57, owner of Ladies of the Sea in the 2700 block of E Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., pleaded guilty in federal court Thursday to multiple counts of theft of government property, access device fraud and aggravated identify theft.
Between Aug. 22, 2012, and Nov. 28, 2012, Panko and two others — Rico Simmons and Mazie Hill — used the restaurant and stolen identities to "extract tax fraud proceeds from debit cards," according to court documents.
Simmons brought debit cards loaded with fraudulent refund money to the restaurant, prosecutors said. Then, they said, Panko and Hill swiped the cards and pretended the money was being spent on food or catering.
The money was then deposited among their bank accounts, according to court records. Prosecutors said it amounted to tens of thousands of dollars.
Simmons and Hill have already pleaded guilty for the crime. Simmons has a sentencing hearing scheduled for March 22 and Hill on Feb. 21.
Panko’s sentencing hearing has not been scheduled.
Prosecutors say she could face up to five years in prison for the conspiracy counts, 10 years for each of the three theft of government property charges, and a consecutive two-year term for the identify theft charges.
Ladies of the Sea has been open for more than 20 years. Her restaurant is still open and she is continues to dole out seafood orders.
Reached by phone Friday, Panko, who goes by Rene Brown, said she allowed Simmons and Hill to take advantage of her.
"I’m hoping the judge that I will see later will understand that I truly am so sorry," she said. "I was naive and stupid to allow these people to do this to me."