Santrece Willingham, 22, pleaded guilty to conspiracy in U.S. District Court in Augusta.
IRS special agent Roger Garland testified Thursday that investigators were tipped off by a bank official who reported suspicious activity. Direct deposits of tax refund checks were sent to an account holder, and none of the checks was made out in the account holder’s name, he said.
Investigators uncovered a scheme that they say ran from January 2009 until the indictment was returned this January. Willingham’s mother, Angela Willingham, came up with the tax fraud idea, Garland testified.
Two people are accused of stealing personal identity information through their jobs at Georgia Regents Medical Center and the Augusta campus of Gracewood Hospital. Using the stolen identities, the indictment says, the conspirators created income tax forms listing phony Georgia Lottery winnings with excess federal tax withholding. The IRS sent the tax returns to bank accounts opened by the conspirators, Garland said.
Santrece Willingham cashed four refunds in 2011 that totaled nearly $21,000, Garland said. Asked by U.S. District Judge J. Randal Hall to explain what she had done, Willingham said co-defendant Kelly Barton knew Willingham was in financial straits in 2011 and offered her a commission if she opened a bank account and made cash withdrawals when instructed.
Willingham suspected it could be illegal but didn’t ask questions, she said.
When she called Barton the last time she went to the bank and was asked about whose name was on the tax return deposit, Barton told her to get out of the bank fast, Willingham said.
Santrece Willingham is the first to plead guilty in the case. The other 11 defendants awaiting trial are: Angela Willingham, 40, Santana Willingham, 23, and James Butler, 21, all of Hephzibah; Dentavia McNair, 23, Janice Smalley, 47, Cheryl Willingham, 37, and Kelly Barton, 35, all of Augusta; Brittney Wright, 25, of Evans; and Patrice Roberson, 36, and LaSandra Whitfield, 42, of Waynesboro, Ga.; and Matthew Harrington, 45, of Savannah, Ga.