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Suspect pleads guilty to federal charges in Tampa tax fraud case

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Published:   |   Updated: March 14, 2013 at 12:10 AM

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TAMPA -

A tax-refund fraud suspect has agreed to plead guilty to federal charges of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft.

Investigators traced tax returns claiming nearly $9 million in refunds to Internet addresses assigned to the home and business of Russell B. Simmons Jr., according to a plea agreement signed by Simmons and filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court.

As part of the agreement, Simmons, 42, owner of Simmons Auto Sales, 4615 N. 34th St., agreed to forfeit items he purchased with the proceeds of tax fraud, including a $60,000 Bentley coupe and diamond jewelry that included a $30,000, 18-karat gold Rolex watch with a diamond dial; a 14-karat gold men's bracelet with 2,420 diamonds; a 14-karat chain and "RS" pendant with 703 diamonds; and a 14-karat ring with 110 diamonds.

Simmons also agreed to forfeit $118,275 stored on preloaded debit cards and $47,580 in cash seized by investigators.

Identity theft tax-refund fraud has exploded in the last couple of years, with thieves using stolen identities to file tax returns to obtain fraudulent refunds. Authorities say Tampa-area criminals have stolen hundreds of millions of dollars this way from federal taxpayers, while thieves nationwide have stolen billions.

In his plea agreement, Simmons admitted filing millions of dollars worth of fraudulent tax returns and laundering fraudulent refunds for other criminals through his car dealership. Many of the people whose identities Simmons used were older, according to the plea agreement, and all of the victims contacted by investigators said they neither knew Simmons nor gave him permission to use their information.

The charges Simmons agreed to admit carry a maximum possible prison sentence of 22 years, although he likely will receive less under the terms of the agreement. Simmons also agreed to cooperate with investigators.

Simmons was among a number of business owners arrested in the joint investigation last year, initially on state identity theft and credit card-fraud charges, after Secret Service agents searched his business Aug. 31, 2011.

However, the charges were dismissed because of the pending federal investigation, and Simmons was allowed to go free.

As the case wore on, Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor went public with her irritation at the slow pace of the investigation into a piece of the tax fraud scourge spreading among street criminals. Authorities say hundreds of millions of dollars in bogus income tax returns have been processed from the Tampa area alone.

"We have an individual that we know did in the ballpark of $9 million in tax fraud," Castor said in February. "He was arrested and charged in September. And there's no reason for us to believe that he's slowed down at all."

In March, Tampa Police Detective Sal Augeri testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee in Washington about tax refund fraud and described the Simmons case without naming him.

"We have no reason to believe he has stopped committing this crime," Augeri said then.


esilvestrini@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7837 Twitter: @ElaineTBO

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