Prentice Johnson found out he was being laid off before his boss broke the news and stole a $4.4 million tax refund check from his employer, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Johnson, 54, of Lawrenceville, Ga. pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years, four months in prison followed by three years of supervised release. His co-defendants, Renina Letricia Wortham, 39, of Lithonia, Ga. and Enobahkare Malik Peterson, 41, of Atlanta, also pleaded guilty and received the same sentence.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Johnson was a payroll manager at a private company, swiped the $4.4 million tax refund check from his employer in August of 2016.
“Shortly before stealing the check, Johnson became aware that his employer was laying him off,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office says. “The employer had not notified Johnson of the layoff, but he saw that his upcoming paycheck contained payment for unused vacation time, which gave away the fact that he was about to lose his job.”
Johnson turned to Wortham, his half sister, and her associate, Peterson, to help with his scheme.
“Because the check was so large, Peterson contacted two associates for assistance, rather than trying to negotiate it himself,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. “At the time, Peterson had no idea that the associates, through counsel, were then engaged in negotiations with federal authorities to resolve unrelated federal criminal charges. In turn, counsel contacted federal law enforcement. ”
Federal agents managed to stop payment on the check and conducted an undercover operation to find the other people involved.
Here is the full press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office:
ATLANTA – Prentice L. Johnson, Renina Letricia Wortham, a/k/a Renina Simmons-Wortham, and Enobahkare Malik Peterson have each been sentenced to two years, four months in federal prison for theft of government funds associated with the theft of a multi-million dollar U.S. Treasury check.
“The defendants wrongly assumed no one would miss a multi-million dollar U.S. Treasury check that was not made out to them,” said U.S. Attorney John Horn. “Quick work by federal agents stopped their attempts to negotiate the check before the defendants were able to abscond with millions in taxpayer funds.”
“TIGTA and its law-enforcement partners will investigate individuals who attempt to steal the revenue generated by the American taxpayer, and will do everything within their power to ensure that those involved are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” said Special Agent in Charge Ruben Florez of TIGTA’s Atlanta Field Division. “TIGTA would like to thank the U.S. Secret Service and IRS Criminal Investigations for their assistance in this case.”
“The United States Secret Service and our law enforcement partners will continue to take an aggressive approach to arrest individuals who violate their positions of trust in an attempt to illegally enrich themselves,” said Kenneth Cronin, Special Agent in Charge of the U.S. Secret Service, Atlanta Field Office. “This sentencing should be a warning to other like-minded criminals and their conspirators that stealing from the American people will not go unpunished.”
“Individuals who attempt to commit refund fraud and theft with this degree of dishonesty and deceit will face consequences for their actions,” stated James Dorsey, Acting Special Agent in Charge, Atlanta Field Office. “IRS Criminal Investigation will continue to do our part in protecting the sanctity and integrity of the tax system.”
According to U.S Attorney Horn, the charges and other information presented in court: Johnson, who worked as a payroll manager at a private company, stole a U.S. Treasury check in the amount of $4,368,869.30 that he found at his employer in late August 2016. The check was a refund check from the IRS, made out to Johnson’s employer. Shortly before stealing the check, Johnson became aware that his employer was laying him off. The employer had not notified Johnson of the layoff, but he saw that his upcoming paycheck contained payment for unused vacation time, which gave away the fact that he was about to lose his job.
After stealing the $4.3 million check, Johnson asked Wortham, who is his half-sister, to help him negotiate it. Wortham, in turn, recruited Peterson to help her negotiate the check. Because the check was so large, Peterson contacted two associates for assistance, rather than trying to negotiate it himself. At the time, Peterson had no idea that the associates, through counsel, were then engaged in negotiations with federal authorities to resolve unrelated federal criminal charges. In turn, counsel contacted federal law enforcement.
Federal agents confirmed with the U.S. Treasury that the check was genuine, and then acted quickly to stop payment on the check and prevent any losses to the U.S. Treasury. Agents also orchestrated a series of undercover operations in order to identify those responsible. The cooperators had identified Peterson to agents, but the identity of the person he recieved the check from was still a mystery.
In an interview with the CEO of the company that was the payee on the check, agents learned: 1) that Johnson was a recently terminated employee of the company; 2) that Johnson had learned of his impending layoff before the company notified him; and 3) that Johnson would have had physical access to the check.
On October 27, 2016, federal agents supervised the cooperators as they met with Peterson and Wortham at a restaurant. For security reasons, Wortham did not bring the check to the meeting. Wortham introduced herself as “Nina,” and explained that she worked as a chef at a catering business. Using this information in a series of public records searches, agents positively identified her as Wortham within a few minutes. Wortham told the cooperators that she had obtained the check from a family member, and that the cooperators, Wortham, and her family member would share the proceeds of the check. Wortham also claimed at the meeting that there were approximately 22 additional checks, with the $4.3 million check being the smallest. Later, in a confession made after her arrest, Wortham admitted that there was only one check, and that she made up the story about having 22 additional checks in order to give her coconspirators a reason not to steal from her.
The next day, on October 28, 2016, federal agents again supervised one of the cooperators as he met with Wortham at a coffee shop. Wortham explained that she felt good about the plan the cooperators had explained to her for cashing the check. Wortham handed over the check to the cooperator, who promised to “get the deal rolling,” and follow up with her after 7-10 days with debit cards for a new bank account with the funds from the check in it.
Based on Wortham’s claim that the check had come from a relative, agents performed intensive public record searches to identify her family members, taking special notice of any who had a connection with the company to which the check was made. Through analysis of public records, agents learned that Wortham and Johnson had both lived with and had close associations with the same woman, who later turned out to be their mother. Later, in her confession, Wortham confirmed that Johnson had been the relative she referred to in the undercover meeting, and that he was the source of the check.
On Friday, November 10, 2016, the cooperator had one last undercover meeting with Wortham, ostensibly to provide her with the checkbook and debit cards to the new account, which had purportedly been funded with the stolen IRS check. However, agents had already sworn out criminal complaints against, and obtained arrest warrants for, all 3 defendants. Wortham was arrested at the November 10, 2016 meeting, and Johnson and Peterson turned themselves in shortly thereafter, after learning of their warrants.
The three defendants were sentenced by U.S. District Judge Timothy H. Batten as follows:
· Prentice L. Johnson, 54, of Lawrenceville, Georgia, was sentenced to two years, four months in prison to be followed by 3 years of supervised release. Johnson pleaded guilty on January 30, 2017, pursuant to a plea agreement.
· Renina Letricia Wortham, a/k/a Renina Simmons-Wortham, 39, of Lithonia, Georgia was sentenced to two years, four months in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release. Wortham pleaded guilty on January 30, 2017, pursuant to a plea agreement.
· Enobahkare Malik Peterson, 41, of Atlanta, Georgia was sentenced to two years, four months in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release. Peterson pleaded guilty on January 26, 2017, pursuant to a plea agreement.
Citizens who have information about stolen or fraudulently obtained federal funds are encouraged to report their tips to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration hotline at (800) 366-4486, or online at https://www.treasury.gov/tigta/contact_report.shtml.
This case was investigated by the U.S. Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, U.S. Secret Service, Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation, and U.S. Postal Inspection Service, with assistance from the United States Treasury, Office of Inspector General.
Assistant United States Attorney Alana R. Black prosecuted the case.