Skip to main content
Press Release

Co-Conspirators Plead Guilty To Tax Fraud

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Middle District of Georgia

United States Attorney Charles E. Peeler announces that Belinda Harris, age 33, of Valdosta, GA; Cynthia Clarkston, age 38, of Valdosta, GA; and Susie Hall Sherman, age 46, formerly of Valdosta, GA, all entered guilty pleas in U.S. District Court April 4, 2018 before Senior District Court Judge Hugh Lawson. Co-defendants Tanya Franklin, age 42, of Valdosta, Georgia and Johnny Gary a/k/a Johnny Sherman a/k/a “Little Johnny,” age 27, of Valdosta, Georgia, entered guilty pleas in the same case on March 15, 2018.

Ms. Harris pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, present false claims, steal and embezzle public money, and possess unauthorized access devices and one count of aggravated identity theft all in connection with a scheme to file fraudulent tax returns seeking more than $600,000 in refunds. She faces a maximum sentence of seven years in Federal prison and restitution of the refund money received.

Ms. Clarkston, Ms. Sherman, and Mr. Gary each entered guilty pleas to the conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, present false claims, steal and embezzle public money, and possess unauthorized access devices. They each face up to five years imprisonment and restitution of the taxpayer money stolen. Ms. Franklin pled guilty to one count of theft of government funds arising from cashing fraudulently obtained checks related to the conspiracy.  Ms. Franklin faces up to 10 years in federal prison and more than $300,000 in restitution to the United States.

In entering their pleas, Ms. Harris, Ms. Clarkston, Ms. Sherman and Mr. Gary admitted to working together between 2010 and 2012 to file numerous fraudulent tax returns using the stolen identity information of other people. During searches conducted by Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office investigators and the United States Secret Service, stolen identity information was found in the homes of Ms. Harris, Ms. Clarkston and Ms. Sherman. The identity information used included more than 100 identities obtained by Mr. Gary from an individual employed at Valdosta State University. The Internal Revenue Service investigation of the scheme determined that 222 fraudulent federal income tax returns for the years 2010 and 2011, were directly linked to the conspiracy, claiming refunds totaling $670,860.00. Actual refunds of $258,914.00 were issued on those fraudulent returns. A number of victims were interviewed by investigators and stated that the federal income tax returns that were filed in their names were completely false and that they did not authorize anyone to file or accept a tax refund in their names.

Additionally, Ms. Franklin admitted to using her business bank accounts to cash fraudulently obtained checks, including those obtained by Ms. Sherman, Ms. Clarkston and others. Ms. Franklin knowingly cashed 99 fraudulent U.S. Treasury checks in 2011 and 2012 in the total amount of $334,380.10.

United States Attorney Charles E. Peeler stated: “This case is another example of good work by both local and federal investigators partnering to bring people making a living stealing both identities and money to justice. Through diligent effort over the course of a lengthy investigation, this group of individuals lining their own pockets at the expense of those whose identities were taken and American taxpayers, will now pay for what they have done. The United States Attorney’s Office is committed to working with the IRS and other law enforcement agencies to find and punish identity thieves victimizing the public, as well as those committing any form of income tax fraud.”

“Today’s plea is another example of the great work being done by our agents” said Thomas J. Holloman, Special Agent in Charge, IRS Criminal Investigation. “We will continue to utilize the resources of our law enforcement partners in combatting identity theft. The identities which are stolen are harmed, and it can take sometimes years to unravel the damage done by these criminals.” Go to IRS.GOV and click on 2018 Dirty Dozen for more on tax schemes. 

“Identity theft continues to be a serious crime that affects millions of Americans each year. The defendants in this case were involved in a complex conspiracy to steal identities for the purpose of defrauding the nation’s financial system. The identity theft victims had their lives invaded in a way that often causes long lasting financial consequences. This investigation exemplifies what can be achieved when Local and Federal law enforcement works together in unity. The Lowndes County Sherriff’s Office played a vital role throughout this investigation. The guilty pleas send a clear message that the U.S. Secret Service along with our law enforcement partners will continue to aggressively pursue those committing these crimes,” said Clint A. Bush, Resident Agent in Charge, Albany, Georgia Resident Office, United States Secret Service.

This case was investigated by the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office, U.S. Secret Service and Internal Revenue Service – Criminal Investigation. Assistant United States Attorney Robert D. McCullers is prosecuting the case for the United States.

Questions concerning this case should be directed to Pamela Lightsey, Public Information Officer, United States Attorney’s Office, at (478) 621-2603.

Updated April 9, 2018

Identity Theft