Tax official's nest had Fabergé eggs
The courthouse files look like the Christmas list of a high-society fashion maven with a purse fetish: mink coats, jewelry, Faberg...
The Associated Press
McLEAN, Va. — The courthouse files look like the Christmas list of a high-society fashion maven with a purse fetish: mink coats, jewelry, Fabergé eggs, a Mercedes-Benz and more than 100 handbags and wallets with designer names such as Chanel, Hermès and Louis Vuitton.
Those are among the items the FBI found at the Washington, D.C., home of Harriette Walters, who until recently was an $81,000-a-year city tax official.
Her salary was a pittance compared with the tens of millions of dollars prosecutors said she and at least five others stole in what may be the biggest embezzlement case in the city's history.
Authorities said Walters was the ringleader of a scheme in which she and the others wrote themselves bogus property-tax-refund checks.
The scam went on for seven years until a bank employee last summer noticed irregularities in the checks. The rip-offs were so brazen that one $346,000 check was made out to a fictitious company the embezzlers named "Bilkemor LLC."
The scheme has been an embarrassment for the city's finance chief, Natwar Gandhi, who has been praised for helping to produce surpluses and strong bond ratings for Washington, a city that was headed toward insolvency in the 1990s after years of mismanagement.
"It's remarkably brazen," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a government-watchdog group. Sloan, a former federal prosecutor, added: "There are supposed to be many controls in place to prevent this, but obviously those controls weren't enough."
Prosecutors in Washington and Maryland, who are handling the case jointly, estimate $20 million was stolen. An analysis by The Washington Post after last month's arrests found about $44 million in suspicious refunds.
Prosecutors said Walters, 51, spent more than $1.4 million at one Neiman Marcus store since 2000 and deposited more than $8 million in her bank account during that time. The bedrooms, closets, kitchen and basement at her $800,000 brick home in northwest Washington were packed with the handbags and other luxury items.
At the Bowie, Md., home of Walters' niece, the FBI found more than $10,000 in cash, about 100 designer bags and purses, a Versace china set and a receipt from a Paris hotel.
Steven Tabackman, Walters' attorney, did not return calls seeking comment.
As manager of the city's Real Property Tax Administration Adjustments unit, Walters could authorize checks so long as some underlings also signed off on them.
But the names of the phony businesses receiving the refunds did not square with the tax-identification numbers assigned to property lots in the city, and none of the refund requests included the required court order.
Gandhi has responded to the scandal by requiring that checks of more than $10,000 be approved by senior managers. Ten people have been fired or reassigned.
The City Council also appointed William McLucas, a former Securities and Exchange Commission enforcement chief who investigated the scandals at Enron and WorldCom, to look into the scam and recommend changes.
The only other city worker charged is Diane Gustus, a 37-year employee who was six months away from retirement. Her lawyer, A. Scott Bolden, said Walters was Gustus' direct supervisor, and he suggested Gustus would have had little choice if Walters ordered her to sign off on payments.
Bolden suggested the money Gustus is alleged to have received may have been given to employees "under the guise of family wealth or successful gambling trips."
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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