More tax fraud charges are likely in a $100,000 scam that so far has ensnared five Richland County sheriff’s deputies and a former, convicted civilian employee of the agency, Sheriff Leon Lott said Thursday.
Each of the now-fired deputies has been criminally charged and each was a veteran of the department, having worked there from seven to 14 years, Lott said. He called their conduct a betrayal of their oaths to serve the public as well as of his trust.
“I want to apologize to the community,” Lott said at a news conference announcing the arrests in a scheme to create fake dependents so deputies could get larger state and federal tax refunds. “This is a very discouraging day today for us at the sheriff’s department.”
The deputies served in positions that ranged from a school resource officer at Richland Northeast High to a road deputy and a plainclothes officer whose job was to capture fugitives from justice.
Authorities learned of the tax fraud scheme while investigating a merchandise counterfeiting operation involving the former employee, Maribel Crespo. She bragged to undercover buyers about filing fake income taxes for Richland County deputies, the sheriff said. A search of her Richland Northeast home also turned up fake federal ID cards and evidence of that she might have been impersonating an immigration lawyer, Lott said.
The officers were suspended without pay a week ago, and Lott said he has now fired them. He said he hopes none of them ever again works in law enforcement.
Lott said he’s particularly galled that the officers knowingly turned to Crespo, a former sheriff’s employee in the warrant division, after she had been arrested by deputies in 2010 for identity theft and misconduct. Crespo pleaded guilty and was on probation when she filed some of the bogus tax returns, Lott said.
Crespo, 39, also skimmed portions of the falsified tax refunds without the deputies’ knowledge, he said. The amount of money she withheld from them still has not been determined.
“She was cheating and scheming on them,” Lott said. “No honor among thieves.”
Richland deputies charged Crespo with 13 counts of tax fraud and one count of trading in counterfeit merchandise.
The deputies, also charged by the sheriff’s department, are each accused of one count of tax fraud, the sheriff said.
Tax fraud is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $500 fine. The deputies and Crespo also might face tax penalties.
Crespo is free on bond with electronic monitoring, the sheriff said.
Investigators are still examining a computer seized from Crespo’s home to determine whether other deputies are involved, Lott said. The house was searched after she sold merchandise to undercover informants.
Federal authorities also are investigating tax fraud, identity theft, including false IDs using Hispanic names found in Crespo’s home, Lott said. She is Hispanic and speaks Spanish.
Authorities seized fake government IDs for the Department of the Army, Air Force and Homeland Security, Lott said. They also found $80,000 in counterfeit Rolex watches, Hello Kitty merchandise and other fake products.
Crespo, who has no education or training in tax preparation, advertised her tax preparation business on social media. She used Facebook to promote the sale of counterfeit products, the sheriff said.
Two officers used Crespo to file false returns one year. The worst offenders did it for four years or five years, Lott said.
The officers are:
• Vivian Belton, 48, and an employee since March 2005, worked in the warrant division. She submitted false returns for tax years 2006 through 2010, the sheriff said. Belton worked in the division that serves various kinds of warrants.
• Bobby Cohens, 42, submitted false returns in 2010 through 2013, Lott said. Cohens, who worked on the fugitive task force, has been a deputy since September 2001.
• Cedrick Jacobs, 40, a school resource officer at Richland Northeast, was hired in May 2005. He is accused of filing false claims in 2008 and 2010.
• Valerie Gibson, 53 and an employee since November 2000, filed one fraudulent return for tax year 2009, according to the charges.
• Eddie West, 29, was hired in October 2007 and was a road deputy. West is charged with filing a false tax claim in 2008.
All at one time were sworn deputies, the sheriff said.
Crespo was hired in July 2003 and was fired in March 2010 after the identity fraud and misconduct arrest that stemmed from her using computers at the sheriff’s department to get names to create fake IDs, Lott said.
The Internal Revenue Service, the U.S. Postal Service and the office of Homeland Security are part of the investigation, he said.