By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Jayrece Turnbull, who helped her aunt embezzle tens of millions of dollars from the D.C. treasury, was sentenced yesterday to nine years behind bars.
The prison term was the longest imposed so far in connection with the fraud, which spanned about two decades and cost the District nearly $50 million before it was uncovered in late 2007. Federal prosecutors said that over the seven years she was involved in the fraud, Turnbull had a hand in stealing about $24 million, or roughly half the total embezzled.
Turnbull's aunt, Harriette Walters, was a longtime manager in the D.C. tax office who launched the scheme, issuing fraudulent property tax refund checks that were deposited by co-conspirators, many of them members of her family.
Over the years, the fraud grew, and so did its fruits. By the time federal agents raided the homes of Walters, Turnbull and others, many of them had amassed a vast array of illicit assets, from beach homes and luxury cars to jewelry and designer shoes.
Authorities have recovered about $10 million in money and property linked to the tax scam. Eleven people, including Walters, have pleaded guilty. Walters is one of four defendants still to be sentenced. She faces 15 to 18 years in prison under a plea deal and is scheduled to be sentenced May 14.
Only Walters is likely to receive a longer sentence than her niece, Turnbull, 34, of Bowie.
In its memorandum to the court, the U.S. attorney's office included dozens of photos of expensive purses and shoes found in Turnbull's home when federal agents searched it in November 2007.
They also included records of some of Turnbull's more lavish expenditures. She made more than $100,000 in purchases from Louis Vuitton alone.
It was, U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams Jr. said yesterday, a portrait of avarice. "Not only did we have dishonesty here, but we had greed," Williams said at the close of the sentencing hearing at the federal courthouse in Greenbelt.
Turnbull, who pleaded guilty last year to mail fraud, tax evasion and other charges, played a central role in carrying out the scheme -- authorities believe she was involved as early as 2000 -- and in bringing it inadvertently to the attention of federal investigators.
Frustrated by a SunTrust bank manager's questions about a $410,000 check that she had deposited in June 2007, Turnbull enlisted a lawyer and on at least one occasion told the bank its actions were illegal. The bank called the FBI.
With that, the fraud began to unravel. Investigators pieced together as much of it as they could before moving in to make arrests. The scandal was a staggering embarrassment for the city and its new mayor, Adrian M. Fenty (D). The head of the tax office and other officials were forced out, and for a time it appeared the city's chief financial officer also might lose his job.
Only in the months that followed did the scale of the embezzlement become clear, as officials tallied loses of more than $49 million. One by one, the defendants, some charged in the District and some charged in Maryland, pleaded guilty.
Dressed in a khaki jail jumpsuit, Turnbull, who has been in custody since her arrest on Nov. 7, 2007, sat quietly through the two-hour hearing, occasionally conferring with her federal public defender. When Williams offered her the opportunity to address the court before he pronounced her sentence, she declined, unlike earlier defendants who have been sentenced.
Turnbull's attorney, Michael CitaraManis, argued that she should not be held responsible for fraudulent checks that were deposited by other co-conspirators.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan C. Su, one of the prosecutors in the case, said Turnbull could and should be held responsible for all of the $24.5 million in embezzled funds that passed through the 26 accounts that she controlled.
The judge agreed with the government, which meant that the recommended sentence range under federal guidelines would be 97 to 121 months. Su asked the judge to impose a sentence of 121 months. CitaraManis asked for the shortest possible penalty.
Saying he had some inclination to impose the sentence sought by the government, Williams ultimately chose a punishment consistent with earlier sentences he had imposed in the case, and issued a sentence in the mid-range of those allowed under the guidelines.
"You have to send a message to others that are even thinking about ripping off the government of the District of Columbia or any government for that matter," Williams said.