A little more than a year ago, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott announced he was firing five longtime deputies and charging them with income tax fraud in an alleged scam that involved identity theft.
“We arrested our own this morning,” a disappointed Lott told a group of reporters in announcing the firings.
Today, the charges against the five are still pending.
“The cases are active,” said a S.C. Department of Revenue spokeswoman last week. The DOR is prosecuting the case because it involves income tax returns.
Also pending are a host of related state and federal charges against Maribel Crespo, the alleged mastermind of the phony purported identity theft income tax scheme. Like the five ex-deputies, Crespo is a former employee of the sheriff’s department.
“We still maintain her innocence,” Crespo’s lawyer, Todd Rutherford, said Friday. Rutherford said with the crowded local trial dockets, it’s not unusual for a year’s time to pass before a trial.
Justin Kata, the attorney who represents one of the ex-deputies, Cedric Jacobs, said Friday, “We are still in the pre-trial stages. No one has pleaded guilty or gone to trial yet.”
Under indictments in the case, five ex-deputies were indicted by a Richland County grand jury on one count of making and assisting in a false tax return and one count of criminal conspiracy. In addition to Jacobs, 41, they were Vivian Belton, 44, Bobby Cohens, 33, Valarie Gibson, 44 and Eddie Lee West, 30.
If convicted, each faces up to 10 years in prison.
Allegations in the case said the five went to Crespo to file false tax returns.
Basically, warrants in the case charged, Crespo unlawfully added phoney dependents to the deputies’ income tax returns so they could get a bigger refund from state government.
Crespo, 40, who formerly worked in the sheriff’s warrant division, was indicted by a Richland County grand jury on 11 counts of making and assisting in a false tax return. If convicted, she faces up to 55 years in prison.
In statements last year, Lott said he was galled that the officers turned to Crespo because she was a known crook. In 2010, she had been arrested for identity theft and misconduct. Crespo had pleaded guilty to those charges and was on probation when she allegedly filed the tax returns at issue in the present case, Lott said.
Authorities learned about the deputies by chance. Crespo, who allegedly ran a merchandise counterfeit scheme, had bragged to undercover law enforcement officers that she was filing fake income tax forms for Richland County deputies. At the time, the undercover officers were investigating her involvement in an alleged counterfeiting operation.
When officers raided her house to gather evidence about the counterfeiting scheme, Lott said they also found: fake federal ID cards; evidence that she was impersonating an immigration lawyer; and evidence linking her to the deputies’ tax forms.
Crespo also faces charges in federal court about the alleged counterfeiting scheme. Her lawyer in federal court, Seth Rose, said no trial date has been set.
Lott said Friday, “We are waiting for the judicial system to run its course and take appropriate action.”