DECEMBER 15, 2008
A Colorado judge has halted an innovative and effective county operation that has led to the arrest of dozens of illegal immigrants who used fake or stolen identities to get federal tax returns.
Launched in October by the sheriff and district attorney in north central Colorado’s Weld County, the operation allowed local authorities to search thousands of federal income tax returns at the Greeley office of a tax preparer suspected of having an unusually large illegal alien clientele.
In a short time the search yielded 1,300 names of people suspected of falsifying or stealing Social Security numbers. So far 37 illegal immigrants have been arrested and charged with identity theft or criminal impersonation. A judge had issued an order approving the first-of-its kind sting before the actual searches began.
But last week a different Weld County District judge (James Hartmann) overruled that order, claiming that federal law protects the confidentiality of income tax returns. In his order, Judge Hartmann wrote that “federal tax return information in the possession of a tax preparer falls within the confidentiality mandates of the federal statute.”
Weld County authorities launched the operation after a local man got arrested for stealing a Social Security number. The man told detectives he had obtained a tax identification number and filed federal returns with the help of the Greeley tax preparer. That’s when the district attorney and sheriff decided to check the preparer’s other clients.
Despite the plan’s success in catching crooks, Weld County prosecutors must go to court again later this month to continue their sting. They estimate that illegal immigrants are, not only stealing identities, but also collecting nearly $3 million in tax returns in their county alone.
Weld District Attorney Ken Buck, a former federal prosecutor in Denver, assures that his operation will pass legal scrutiny. He points out that the federal statute addresses when the Internal Revenue Service can release information, but it doesn’t prohibit people from getting tax returns in other ways. The prosecutor also reminds that he obtained a lawful court order before proceeding.
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