A Columbus man was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison Tuesday for his role in a large income tax refund check cashing scheme that bilked more than $24 million from the government.
A tearful Sawan “Sunny” Shah, 43, told U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land, “I want to admit to this court what I have done.” He was sentenced on one count of operating an unlicensed money transmitting business in connection with his October guilty plea.
Shah tried to read a prepared statement but was too emotional and one of his attorneys, Stacey Jackson of Columbus, read it into the record.
“It is not simply that I regret getting caught,” Jackson read. “My actions do not reflect who I am or the kind of person I want to be. I spent a year or two taking from the community and I am embarrassed.”
Shah’s lead attorney, Jeffrey C. Duffey of Montgomery, Ala., asked the court for mercy and probation. Before passing sentence, Land called Shah’s actions “serious criminal conduct.”
Shah 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 in the sentencing. In addition to the prison time, Land also ordered Shah to pay restitution in the amount of the more than $1.357 million.
Land said he was troubled by the facts.
“Doing something 567 times does not suggest it was a mistake,” the judge said. “It suggests it would have continued if he was not arrested.”
The businessman’s attorney told the judge Shah was prepared to pay $500,000 on Tuesday and asked for the remainder to be set up by payments.
The fake income tax checks came from database identity thefts from Carmike Cinemas, TSYS and Fort Benning. Shah was receiving between 10 and 30 percent for cashing the fake checks.
“He not only facilitated stealing from the U.S. Treasury, but also facilitated the stealing of the identity of a number of victims,” said Land, explaining why he was insisting on a prison sentence.
Prosecutor Michael C. Boteler, with the U.S. Department of Justice Tax Division in Washington, D.C., asked Land to consider a reduction in sentence because Shah had provided substantial assistance in prosecuting other criminal cases. Under suggested sentencing guidelines, Shah was originally facing 31 to 37 months in prison.
Land agreed to lower the guidelines based on Shah’s cooperation with prosecutors, which was not outlined in the hearing. Under the reduced guidelines, Land could have sentenced Shah to up to 26 months in federal prison. Shah was not immediately taken into custody and was permitted to schedule a date to report to prison.
About two dozen Shah supporters were in the Columbus federal courthouse for the nearly one-hour hearing. That group included three local elected officials. Muscogee County Sheriff John Darr, Marshal Greg Countryman and Municipal Court Clerk Vivian Creighton-Bishop sat on the row with Shah’s family members.
Darr was one of two people who addressed the court. The sheriff asked the judge to give Shah probation instead of a prison sentence.
“Mr. Shah is remorseful and regrets his actions,” Darr told the court.
Shah, who owns a string of convenience stores, is a naturalized citizen from Mumbai, India. He has lived in Columbus more than 15 years.
Prior to sentencing, Land said he had received a number of letters from people in the community — including elected officials — vouching for Shah’s character and good deeds.
“You don’t look like someone who would pull a gun or knife; you don’t look like someone who would sell drugs to kids; you don’t seem like somebody so dangerous they should be in prison,” Land told Shah. “But the law does not apply to just those who look like criminals. … This is not merely cashing checks and not taking someone’s ID. This facilitated stealing more than $1 million and identity theft.”
Shah was just a part of a vast criminal conspiracy centered in the Chattahoochee Valley. At least a dozen people have been previously sentenced in connection with the scheme.
Newnan, Ga., resident Keisha Lanier, the ringleader of the plan was sentenced in September by U.S. District Court Judge Kristi K. DuBose of the Southern District of Alabama to serve 15 years in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release and ordered to forfeit $5.811 million.
In May, Tamika Floyd of Phenix City was sentenced in the Southern District of Alabama to more than seven years in prison.
In June, Tamaica Hoskins of Phenix City was sentenced in the Southern District of Alabama to more than 12 years in prison.
In August, eight people connected in the conspiracy were sentenced in the Southern District of Alabama:
• Tracy Mitchell, of Phenix City, was sentenced to serve 159 months in prison, three years of supervised release and ordered to pay a forfeiture judgment in the amount of $329,242, which was seized in cash from her residence.
• Talarius Paige, of Phenix City, was sentenced to serve five years in prison, three years of supervised release and ordered to pay $762,512 in restitution to the IRS.
• Mequetta Snell-Quick, of Columbus, was sentenced to serve two years and one day in prison, two years of supervised release and ordered to pay $199,471 in restitution to the IRS.
• Latasha Mitchell, of Phenix City, was sentenced to serve three years in prison, two years of supervised release and ordered to pay $513,821 in restitution to the IRS.
• Dameisha Mitchell, of Phenix City, was sentenced to serve more than five years in prison, three years of supervised release and ordered to pay $440,176 in restitution to the IRS.
• Sharonda Johnson, of Phenix City, was sentenced to serve two years in prison, two years of supervised release and ordered to pay $440,176 in restitution to the IRS;
• Patrice Taylor, of Columbus was sentenced to serve one year and one day in prison, two years of supervised release and ordered to pay $28,783 in restitution to the IRS; and
• Cynthia Johnson, of Phenix City, was sentenced to two years of probation and ordered to pay $5,047 in restitution to the IRS.