A former postal worker in New Jersey has pleaded guilty in federal court to stealing income tax refund checks worth a total of $442,776 along his New Jersey mail route, authorities said on Friday.
Earl Champagne, 47, a resident of Willingboro, pleaded guilty to one count of theft of U.S. mail and one count of theft of government money in front of U.S. District Judge Robert B. Kugler in the federal court located in Camden, New Jersey, U.S. attorney Paul J. Fishman said to The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Champagne was employed by the U.S. Postal Service to deliver mail in the town of Pennsauken. The 19-year-veteran mail carrier for Burlington County admitted to stealing 72 U.S. Treasury checks. According to court documents, two New Jersey residents — identified in court documents only as Alex and David — approached Champagne about stealing IRS checks from his delivery route. He was reportedly told to look for tax refund checks addressed to individuals with “Spanish” names.
Prosecutors said that those individuals paid Champagne $50 for every check stolen from the mail from March to July 2014, which means he would have made only $3,600 from the scheme, even though the total value of the checks he handed over totaled well over $400,000.
The Philly Inquirer tells how the conspiracy played out.
“In court Friday, Champagne said Alex, on certain occasions, told him when the checks were scheduled to be delivered. Other times, he said he was shown a piece of paper by Alex or David with addresses and told to retrieve checks from those addresses. The checks were either picked up from Champagne by the individuals or he notified them when the checks were in the mailbox and they retrieved the checks.”
Champagne added that he was “aware that Alex and David’s boss took the U.S. Treasury checks to New York to be cashed.”
The individuals known only as Alex and David were identified as co-conspirators in the crime but were not named as defendants in this case. Court records show one was a resident of Merchantville and the other a resident of Maple Shade.
U.S. attorney Fishman credited the efforts of special agents of Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigation unit and the U.S. Postal Service’s Office of Inspector General with the investigation the led to the guilty plea.
Champagne was an employee of the U.S. Postal Service from 1995 to November 2014. His lawyer, Michael Riley, told Fox News that he was “a family man who worked hard for the postal service for nearly 20 years,” and called his actions “a shame,” saying that he had “just exercised very poor judgment.”
Stolen Identity Refund Fraud, or SIRF, is a crime that results in over $2 billion in losses to the federal treasury each year. Perpetrators typically obtain personal information like a birth date or a social security number from victims, then use the stolen identities to file fraudulent tax returns with false wages in order to get a refund check from the government. The checks are then mailed to locations the scammers can access, or in some cases, mail carriers are bribed to illegally remove the checks from the mail for them on their mail routes. Victims of the scam typically reside in Puerto Rico, according to the Courier-Post.
“Residents of Puerto Rico are issued Social Security numbers, but do not have to pay federal income tax if all of their income is from sources on the island. As a result, many Puerto Ricans do not know fraudulent tax returns have been filed in their names.”
NJ.com noted that each of the charges carries a stiff maximum penalty.
“The theft of U.S. Mail and theft of government money charges to which Champagne pleaded guilty both carry maximum penalties of 15 years in prison and a fine of $250,000.”
Sentencing has for the case been scheduled for August 3.
[Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images]