The reason a convicted felon involved in defrauding the U.S. Treasury out of more than $1.3 million in a check-chasing scheme stayed out of federal prison for nearly a year and a half after his sentencing will remain secret for the time being, a judge ordered late last week.
On Jan. 26, 2016, Sawan “Sunny” Shah, then 43, was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison by Chief U.S. District Court Judge, Middle District of Georgia Clay D. Land for his role in a scam that bilked more than $24 million from the U.S. government and has led to nearly two dozen convictions in federal court in Alabama and Georgia.
Shah reported to the Federal Prison Camp at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., on June 12 to begin serving his sentence.
At least five times since March 2016, documents have been entered into the Shah case file and each time those documents have been ordered sealed by the court. On March 7, May 25, Sept. 9 and Dec. 7 of 2016 and March 9 of 2017, the prosecutor has requested that documents filed with the court be sealed. The federal government, which prosecuted Shah, requested that the filings be kept from public view.
Attorneys for Shah and the government have declined to comment on the reasons for the sealed documents or why Shah avoided prison for more than 16 months.
After Shah reported to prison, Land requested the government file a motion with the court stating why the Shah information should remain restricted.
In a carefully worded two-page order, Land addressed the issue and the reason for not making the court filings public.
“The Government has made a strong showing as to why the reasons for Defendant’s delay in reporting to prison should not be publicly disclosed,” Land wrote. “The Court reconfirms that the delay was warranted under well-established law and that the public’s right to know the reasons for the delay is substantially outweighed by the interests served in keeping those reasons confidential.”
The footnote accompanying Land's order indicated the judge knew much more than he could reveal.
“Because the Court cannot fully explain its rationale without disclosing the information that it finds should not be publicly disclosed, it recognizes that its restriction of access has a ‘trust me, I know what I’m doing’ aspect to it,” the order stated, “But under the circumstances, the Court knows of no viable alternative.”
Shah, a naturalized citizen from Mumbai, India, who has lived in Columbus more than 16 years and owns a string of local convenience stores, was involved in cashing 567 fake income tax refund checks during 2013 and 2014. The checks totaled more than $1.357 million according to facts presented at the sentencing.
Shah, a prominent contributor to local political campaigns, received considerable support from local elected officials at the time of the sentencing. Then Sheriff John Darr testified at the sentencing, telling Land that he was a friend. Marshal Greg Countryman and Municipal Court Clerk Vivian Creighton Bishop were in the courtroom. All three had written letters of support to Shah prior to the sentencing. Congressman Sanford Bishop also wrote a letter of support to the court.
Most of Shah’s businesses sell lottery tickets for the Georgia Lottery Corp., the agency that oversees the state regulated lottery.