Twenty-two North Augusta area residents, including 20 Irish Travelers, have agreed to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit racketeering in exchange for the dropping of other federal charges against them.
The plea agreements were filed in federal court in Columbia on Thursday afternoon. Conspiracy to commit racketeering is an overall charge indicating an effort to be part of a organized scheme to make money through illegal activity.
“This was the result of months of hard work between the government and all the defense lawyers,” said Columbia attorney Jack Swerling, who represents defendant Rose Mulholland. “We don’t do something like this overnight.”
Hearings for the 22 defendants will begin Feb. 28 before U.S. Judge Michelle Childs. After hearing a brief statement of the facts of each case, she will decide whether to accept or reject the agreements. Judges normally accept such agreements but often have questions for defense attorneys and prosecutors.
Acting U.S. Attorney Beth Drake could not be reached for comment.
Last August, a federal grand jury indicted the 22, alleging that they were part of a sophisticated organized crime ring. The indictment accused them of committing major financial frauds, among them money laundering and various illegal schemes involving life insurance, food stamps, Medicaid funds and auto financing.
In all, the government identified 45 counts of illegal activity against the 22. Some defendants were charged with multiple criminal counts; others, only a few.
“Many of the defendants are Travelers who reside in Murphy Village, where they own large homes, luxury cars and expensive jewelry and clothes, which are often acquired through the fraud schemes,” the indictment alleges.
The indictment, the result of a joint federal-state law enforcement task force, including the FBI and IRS, was the most concerted crackdown on alleged criminals in the Irish Travelers group in years.
The Travelers have for years attracted sporadic news coverage for their various handymen who travel the Carolinas and Georgia, ripping off unsuspecting homeowners by doing shoddy repair work after being paid up front in cash. One of their biggest reported scams has been paving driveways with substandard material.
The defendants are subject to a fine of $250,000 per violation and a 20-year prison sentence. However, the actual sentences will take into account such matters as whether each defendant has a prior criminal record.
Ongoing criminal activities the defendants were accused of included submitting false information to qualify for food stamps, loans they weren’t entitled to and Medicaid payments.