After his business was raided last year by federal agents investigating tax refund fraud, Nedal Ahmad continued to traffic in illegally obtained U.S. Treasury checks, authorities say.
"He was either incredibly brazen or not very bright," said John Joyce, who heads the Tampa office of the U.S. Secret Service, which arrested Ahmad Monday at his Temple Terrace home on a charge of attempting to commit wire fraud by mailing fraudulently obtained Treasury checks in a scheme to defraud the federal government. Joyce said he expects more charges to follow.
Joyce said others are also likely to be arrested as part of the larger tax fraud investigation. "This particular arrest is an important part of the puzzle, but there are a lot of other parts to the puzzle that we're still looking at, still trying to put together," he said.
Ahmad's arrest comes three months after his brother, Riad Faisal Sulaiman, 38, was sentenced to more than five years in federal prison in a related tax fraud case prosecuted in Fort Lauderdale.
The brothers own Empire Street Wear, a clothing store and check-cashing business that authorities say bought fraudulently obtained tax refund checks at a discount from street criminals who used stolen identities to file fake tax returns.
Joyce estimated $100,000 worth of fraudulent Treasury checks and preloaded debit cards passed through Empire Street Wear every week for more than a year -- beginning in January 2011 and continuing up to Ahmad's arrest.
Ahmad, 35, used part of the proceeds to purchase counterfeit designer goods to sell at his store, according to a criminal complaint. Some of the money was deposited into 184 bank accounts Ahmad set up in the names of 149 identity theft victims, authorities say.
Those accounts were established with the help of an employee at Regions Bank, who was arrested by the Pasco County Sheriff's Office and is facing state charges, authorities say. The name of that person, who is cooperating with investigators, has not been made public.
A crooked Ocala Police officer, Dana Brown, also helped facilitate the creation of those bank accounts by giving Ahmad information from a law enforcement database that Ahmad used to obtain drivers' licenses in the names of the identity theft victims, authorities said. Brown has pleaded guilty in Tampa federal court to conspiracy and aggravated identity theft and is awaiting sentencing.
Empire Street Wear was one of several business searched by federal and local authorities Sept. 1 as part of "Operation Rainmaker," a task force formed to investigate the explosion in tax refund fraud that has rocked local law enforcement and has led to congressional hearings and proposed legislation.
Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor has said the fraud "conservatively" is responsible for the theft of hundreds of millions of dollars from taxpayers in the Tampa area alone.
In the fraud -- known in street parlance as drops or TurboTax, for the popular online filing program -- criminals use stolen Social Security numbers to file tax returns with phony income information and have the "refunds" sent to addresses that they control.
When agents searched Empire Street Wear at 1925 E. Fletcher Ave. in September, they recovered nearly $20,000 in cash, more than $58,000 in money orders and nearly $120,000 in fraudulently obtained Treasury checks, according to Ahmad's arrest affidavit.
U.S. Magistrate Elizabeth Jenkins on Monday set bail for Ahmad at $20,000 but said the defendant will have to establish that any money put up to secure the bail was not obtained through illegal activity.
The judge noted that Ahmad is a new U.S. citizen, and she ordered that he surrender both his American and Jordanian passports as a condition of his release.
Members of Ahmad's family who were in court for his hearing declined to talk to reporters afterward.
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