Crime

Phenix City woman sentenced in two-state tax fraud scheme

TIM CHITWOOD

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.com

A federal judge has sentenced a Phenix City woman to serve 51 months in prison in an identity-theft and check-cashing scheme authorities have tied to Columbus businessman Suwan “Sunny” Shah.

Prosecutors identified Benita E. Short of Phenix City as a codefendant with Keshia Lanier, whom they called the ringleader of the $24 million conspiracy to steal victims’ identities for use in filing fraudulent tax returns.

Lanier last March pleaded guilty to wire fraud and aggravated identity theft. She was sentenced Sept. 25 to serve 15 years in prison with three years of supervised release, and ordered to pay $5,811,406.

Short was accused of filing 326 fraudulent tax returns seeking more than $450,000 in refunds, authorities said. Besides her prison time, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson of Montgomery sentenced her to serve three years of supervised release and pay the IRS $116,636 in restitution.

Court documents show that in 2013, Short obtained names, Social Security numbers, addresses and dates of birth from a co-conspirator, who got the information from someone with access to Alabama state databases.

The co-conspirator also gave Short “Electronic Filing Identification Numbers” in the names of tax preparation businesses. Short then used the stolen identities and EFINs electronically to file fraudulent tax returns totaling $456,853, prosecutors said.

Short also arranged for the refund checks to be cashed at businesses in Alabama and Georgia, investigators said. She pleaded guilty in October to conspiracy to defraud the United States and aggravated identity theft.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Clay Land of Columbus sentenced Shah to 21 months in federal prison for cashing 567 fraudulent income tax refund checks totaling more than $1.35 million in 2013 and 2014. Land also ordered Shah to pay more than $1.35 million in restitution.

Those refunds resulted from database identity thefts from Carmike Cinemas, TSYS and Fort Benning, authorities said. Shah was receiving between 10 and 30 percent for cashing the checks, they said.

In explaining why he was giving Shah prison time instead of probation, Land said: “He not only facilitated stealing from the U.S. Treasury, but also facilitated the stealing of the identity of a number of victims.”

Shah initially faced 31 to 37 months in prison for his role in the scheme, prosecutors said.

Shah previously has been a generous contributor to some local political campaigns. Among the supporters attending his sentencing were Muscogee Sheriff John Darr, Marshal Greg Countryman and Municipal Court Clerk Vivian Creighton-Bishop.

Darr asked Land to give Shah probation instead of a prison sentence. “Mr. Shah is remorseful and regrets his actions,” Darr told the court.

Land said local residents — including elected officials — sent the court letters praising Shah’s character.

Shah, who owns a string of convenience stores, is a naturalized citizen from Mumbai, India, who has lived in Columbus more than 15 years.

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