Nineteen Irish Travelers and associates pleaded not guilty Tuesday morning to federal racketeering charges alleging they are part of a major organized financial fraud crime ring.
Federal Magistrate Judge Shiva Hodges allowed each of the 19, who are from the Aiken area, to go free on a $25,000 unsecured bond. But she warned them they could be sent to prison if they violated terms of their release, which included not breaking any local, state or federal laws.
During a two-hour hearing at the U.S. courthouse in downtown Columbia, Hodge spent 27 minutes reading out loud nearly every word in a 17-page federal indictment made public Aug. 16. She also told them that all the charges carry a maximum $250,000 fine and a 20-year prison sentence.
That sweeping 45-count indictment Hodges read spelled out the kind of financial crimes allegedly uncovered by an FBI investigation that has lasted more than a year: money laundering, illegal banking transactions, food stamp and medicaid fraud and a mix of other alleged crimes.
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Although all 19 defendants had worried looks on their faces Tuesday, their lawyers included some of South Carolina’s most prominent and high-priced criminal defense lawyers. Five of the defense lawyers are former federal prosecutors whose knowledge of criminal laws will no doubt be put to use exploring any weaknesses in prosecutors’ cases.
The lengthy federal investigation into the Irish Travelers was aided by the presence of at least one inside informant, defense attorney Jack Swerling speculated to reporters after Tuesday’s hearing.
Lead federal prosecutor, assistant U.S. Attorney Jim May, had no comment on any aspect of the case as he left the courthouse, accompanied by FBI agent Ron Grosse. Documents released so far in the case contain no mention of any informant.
Three more Irish Travelers were expected to be arraigned and plead not guilty within 24 hours.
Federal authorities have also moved to seize 25 mostly high-end vehicles, including a Porsche, a Mercedes, three BMWs and three Lexuses, from Travelers in the Murphy Village area.
An arraignment is the first formal court appearance for defendants who have been indicted. At an arraignment, a defendant pleads not guilty and is informed of the charges against him or her.
Nearly all the Irish Travelers and associates arraigned Tuesday came from an unincorporated area near North Augusta, just past Interstate 20 in Aiken County, known as Murphy Village. The area is home to one of the largest communities of Irish Travelers in the nation. According to the 2010 Census, about 1,400 Travelers live there. National counts of Travelers range between 10,000 and 40,000.
The group, said to be descended from Irish immigrants to the U.S. in the 1850s, is known for its closed ways.
A small segment of the Irish Travelers for years have been the object of police raids and attention before. But no one can remember a law enforcement offensive that has the scope of the current FBI roundup that alleges organized crime and so far has netted 22 suspects.
In 2002, for example, a state task force swept through Murphy Village and arrested 14 Irish Travelers on charges of food stamp fraud, tax evasion and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. As the arrests were going on, a van carrying a reporter and film crew for Dateline NBC filmed the roundup.
That 2002 action was dubbed “Shayjo” – the Irish Traveler word for police – by law enforcement. Eight of the arrests at that time were related to the truancy of Traveler children from schools in Aiken and Edgefield counties.
In 2001, seven Irish Travelers were indicted by S.C. federal authorities on various fraud charges, including using fraudulent income tax returns as proof of income to finance cars they purchased.