TAMPA - Although Rashia Wilson might have bragged on Facebook that she was a pioneer in the wave of tax refund fraud that engulfed Tampa's streets, her lawyer says she was no such thing.
"She is being singled out as something she is not," wrote lawyer Mark J. Obrien in a memorandum filed in anticipation of her sentencing on Tuesday. "The defendant did not originate this crime, nor is she the only one committing this crime. Yet the government is treating her as (if) both were instead true."
But while the defense is downplaying Wilson's fraud, the prosecution says she stole far more than previously realized - possibly as much as $20 million in fraudulent tax refunds. In addition to using the money to buy a $90,000 car while she still was collecting food stamps, Wilson also spent $30,000 on a birthday party for her 1-year-old daughter, according to a prosecution court pleading.
Wilson came to prominence as one of the most brazen thieves to commit identity theft tax refund fraud in this city.
Her Facebook posts have become legendary.
"YES I'M RASHIA THE QUEEN OF IRS TAX FRAUD," reads a May 2011 posting on her Facebook page described in the IRS court affidavits. "IM' A MILLIONAIRE FOR THE RECORD SO IF U THINK INDICTING ME WILL BE EASY IT WONT I PROMISE U!"
Five months later, a federal grand jury indicted Wilson on a weapons offense. Two months after that, she was indicted on 57 federal charges related to tax fraud.
She has pleaded guilty in both cases and faces a maximum possible sentence of 22 years in federal prison.
In anticipation of her federal sentencing hearing, Wilson wrote a contrite letter to the court, apologizing and pleading for mercy, asking not to be sent to prison for a long time and taken away from her three children.
But she also says the government is handling the fraud problem inadequately.
"This process will be ongoing because I feel the government is focusing more on the people filing the fraudulent tax returns than focusing in the government employees who are saleing the fraudulent information and profiting from the refund," she wrote in the letter.
On this point, Wilson is in agreement with the judge who presided over her guilty plea hearing in April and was astounded that the seventh grade dropout was able to con the IRS out of so much money in fraudulent tax refunds.
"I want to know why the people in the IRS aren't paying more attention to what's going on," the judge said then. "I'm focusing on their failure, not hers. I'm curious to know if she got the returns really fast because they're so concerned with getting the refunds out fast that no one's paying any attention."
While Wilson admits she stole millions from the federal government, her lawyer is arguing she should have a lesser sentence, in part because of the government's financial problems.
"Our government is in dire financial need," O'Brien wrote in his memorandum. "It makes more sense to incarcerate at a lesser rate and then extend the term of supervision so that the defendant may make restitution to her fellow taxpayers."
And even though Wilson used computers to file fraudulent tax returns, she is asking taxpayers to help hone her computer skills while in prison. O'Brien asked the sentencing judge to recommend that she be allowed to participate in vocational training while in prison "including computer classes."
O'Brien also wrote about Wilson's hard life, describing how she was born to a drug-addicted mother and a father who is now serving time in prison for a sex offense. She's been on her own since the age of 12 and became a mother at the age of 14. She's also been diagnosed with major depression and bipolar disorder, and collected Social Security disability payments until she turned 18.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Sweeney wrote in her court memorandum that Wilson used the money she stole from taxpayers "for nothing more than personal greed and glorification, including, jewelry, automobiles, parties and travel."
The $30,000 party for her 1-year-old daughter - paid for with fraudulently obtained tax refunds - featured carnival rides and games, Sweeney wrote. "And while she was purchasing jewelry, purses and shoes valued at thousands of dollars with taxpayer money, she flaunted her wealth and thumbed her nose on Facebook at the government and taxpayers she defrauded."
Sweeney says Wilson "glorified her crimes and held herself out as the sort of anti-role model, calling herself the 'queen' and 'first lady' of tax fraud while publicly bragging about her crimes. Such behavior requires a significant sentence in order to provide a deterrent effect to others who might seek to emulate the defendant."
Sweeney says in her memorandum that when the prosecution offered Wilson the plea agreement, investigators estimated she had stolen between $2.5 million and $7 million from the government. Since then, authorities have developed more information, now putting the loss amount at between $7 million and $20 million. But Sweeney said the prosecution is willing to stand by its position in the plea agreement, recommending that Wilson's sentence be based on the lower loss amount.
Aware of the outrage Wilson's case has stirred, O'Brien is urging U.S. District Judge James Moody not to bow to public pressure in passing sentence.
"While the cover of the book is horrid," he wrote, "the book itself is not as bad as it seems. The defendant prays this court will look beyond the superficial egregiousness of this case."