Bid to Trick Bankers Is Alleged
Friday, July 25, 2008
As the D.C. tax scheme began to unravel last year, Harriette Walters made an emotional phone call to Alethia Grooms, her friend, gambling partner and real estate agent.
Yesterday, prosecutors gave this account of what happened next: Crying, the D.C. tax office manager said she needed help in deflecting suspicions raised by a SunTrust Bank employee over a $410,000 tax refund check. Grooms, a graphics designer, then used her computer to help create a phony document in hopes of getting the money.
The effort to fend off suspicious bank employees proved fruitless, and federal authorities were soon onto a scam that had generated up to $50 million in fraudulent property tax refunds from the city. Walters, who allegedly engineered the thefts while working at the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue, was arrested in November, weeks after making the frantic call.
Prosecutors filed court papers yesterday signaling that Grooms is about to become the ninth person to plead guilty in the biggest corruption case in the history of the D.C. government.
Grooms, 52, of Clinton, was charged with receiving stolen property and conspiring to commit money laundering in a "criminal information," a document that can be filed only with the defendant's consent and that usually signals a plea agreement.
Grooms, who was previously charged in the case, was also accused of using her computer skills to create forged pay stubs and W-2 forms that helped three other people commit mortgage fraud, the charging papers allege.
Two of the people who allegedly received that help were charged yesterday with mortgage fraud in criminal informations. They are identified in court papers as Temika G. Gustus, 27, the daughter of another person facing fraud charges in the tax scandal, and Sheila Jones, 46. Both are employees in the D.C. tax office and live in District Heights.
Gustus and Jones, who were not charged in the tax scam, could not be reached for comment. Grooms's attorney, Kevin McCants, also could not be reached.
Meanwhile, U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan reversed a decision and ordered the release of a Southeast Washington man awaiting sentencing in the case. Sullivan had ordered Samuel Earl Pope, 61, jailed last week after the former salon owner pleaded guilty to mail fraud and money laundering. At that time, the judge said he was jailing Pope to send a message that white-collar criminals shouldn't expect to leave the courthouse and "get on a subway train and be home by lunch."
At a follow-up hearing yesterday, Sullivan said he agreed with defense attorney Barry Tapp, who argued that Pope should be released because he is in poor health and could face retaliation in jail because he is cooperating with prosecutors. The judge put Pope on home detention pending sentencing.
In addition to the three people charged yesterday, three others are awaiting trial: Walters; her niece Jayrece Turnbull; and former tax office employee Diane Gustus, the mother of Temika Gustus. Walters and Turnbull, described by prosecutors as the leaders in the scam, are jailed.
According to the court papers filed yesterday, Grooms and Walters met while taking classes at the University of the District of Columbia in the 1980s. They often gambled together at casino nights at volunteer fire stations in Maryland, and Grooms acted as Walters's real estate agent when she bought her Northwest Washington home for $420,000 in 2000.