Back in 2010, Las Vegan Julie Gilbert decided to put her own spin on the adage that life holds two certainties: death and taxes.
She purloined the identities of 28 people and filed false tax returns in their names. Despite the theft of identity and invasion of privacy, her victims didn’t raise a single complaint.
They were, alas, deceased.
Some of the fraudulent returns were approved and checks totaling nearly $38,000 were processed. Others were denied. Investigators from IRS Criminal eventually spotted the pattern and caught up to Gilbert, a mother of three who struggled with drug addiction. In late 2015, she signed a plea agreement that called for her to serve an 18-month sentence and pay restitution for the amount she defrauded taxpayers.
Death and taxes. It’s something Tara Sullivan, the new interim Special Agent in Charge of the Nevada office of the IRS Criminal Investigation Division, wants everyone to remember this time of year. The fraud her agents investigate victimizes honest taxpayers to the tune of billions of dollars each year.
Tax fraud using the names of the deceased sounds novel, but it’s increasingly common. Sullivan has seen the scam often in a 15-year career that has covered the Bronx, Boston and Tampa with a stop at IRS headquarters in Washington, D.C. She’s also no stranger to Las Vegas.
In fact, you might call it a homecoming. Sullivan, just 35, graduated from Silverado High and earned her accounting degree at UNLV. She started her career in 2000 as an intern in the local IRS office.
Identity theft associated with tax fraud is everywhere, she said, but, “Tampa was at the epicenter. It was crazy. On every street corner you could find a new identity theft case. It’s not the same here, but it is something I’m interested in here.”
She works mostly out of the Las Vegas office, but the duty is far-ranging and includes all of Nevada and Utah. Her regular travel schedule finds her in Ogden one day, Reno the next.
But Las Vegas, she admits, is a special city. Cash flows here like nowhere else. Casinos increasingly are regulated like the banking industry. In addition to money laundering, the varieties of tax fraud keep Criminal Investigation analysts and agents busy running down the paper trail and following the money.
“We’re trying to replicate the same thing in the casino industry as we have with the banking industry because it’s really not that much different,” she said. “It’s just as much money.”
Former IRS Special Agent in Charge Paul Camacho, who now works in the casino industry, has met Sullivan and come away impressed.
“You’ve got to have a certain type of person in this position,” Camacho said. “You have to appreciate that this is a relationship town. Whether it’s with law enforcement or the private sector, it’s about building relationships that help you do your job better. She understands that.”
Insufficient staffing in 2016 is one of Sullivan’s obvious challenges. Although a few senior agents remain from her days as an intern, cutbacks and retirements force the office to do more with less.
“Las Vegas was hit hard with resource issues,” Sullivan said. “The Utah office is just as bad, and it’s a challenge in Reno. We’re trying to deliver as much, but we have fewer people to do it.”
In and out of tax season, the challenges only figure to increase with the release of millions of documents in the so-called “Panama Papers” scandal, which has raised the issue of international tax avoidance through the use of shell corporations by companies and individuals taking advantage of Nevada’s secretive laws of incorporation. Sullivan said her office is monitoring developments and was anticipating them.
That’s another part of what makes this homecoming special. Las Vegas and Nevada provide an international crossroads of cash and concealment.
“For me personally, it’s kind of nice to come back to where I started,” Sullivan said.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Contact him at 702-383-0295 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith