Florida man sentenced for leading $100M tax-refund "fraud factory"

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) headquarters building is seen in Washington April 13, 2014.

AP Photo/J. David Ake

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.-- A man described by a Florida federal judge as the boss of a $100 million-plus "fraud factory" that used thousands of stolen identities to illegally obtain income tax refunds was sentenced Thursday to nearly 20 years in prison.

U.S. District Judge William Dimitrouleas imposed the sentence on Harlan "Money King" Decoste, 27, who previously pleaded guilty to fraud, identity theft and other charges. Decoste had faced even more prison time, but Dimitrouleas gave him a slight break by using a somewhat lower tax-fraud loss estimate than the government.

Still, the judge made clear Decoste got the longest prison sentence of the five men convicted in the case because he was in charge.

"I think it was a fraud factory," Dimitrouleas said at a hearing Thursday. "He's the boss."

Internal Revenue Service investigators say the group used a rented house in the quiet suburb of Miramar as the hub for 10 laptop computers used in an attempt to steal about $108 million between July 2011 and May 2013. The IRS estimated the men were able to fraudulently obtain at least $28.2 million in actual refunds using 29,000 separate stolen identities.

The operation broke wide open after police responded to a May 2013 home invasion robbery at the house and found the computers, stacks of cash, closets filled with expensive shoes and jewelry, watches, bags of marijuana and other drugs, and dozens of prepaid debit cards and credit cards.

Decoste attorney Barry Greff insisted the IRS fraud estimates were vastly overblown. He said even the loot and cash recovered at the house was meager compared to the government's loss figures in the tens of millions of dollars.

"There's just no way," Greff said. "It is all based on speculation, conjecture and possibilities."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Brooke Watson said investigators had not been able to trace all of the stolen money but said the operation was among the largest tax refund fraud schemes the IRS has ever uncovered. Watson said Decoste was arrested in 2015 on similar charges in the Atlanta area and appeared to brag in recorded jail phone calls there about his abilities to steal.

"They don't call me the Money King for no reason," Decoste said on one recorded call in which he told another person details of using stolen identities on tax forms.

Decoste also created a purported rap label called GroundUp111 as a cover for the fraud business, Watson said. Other defendants were listed as officers of the so-called company, which did not produce any music.

Prosecutors are seizing the ill-gotten gains, including more than $174,000 in cash, the 10 computers, Rolex and other expensive watches and more than a dozen gold and diamond necklaces, chains and pendants. Most of the defendants also must pay as much as $28 million each in restitution to the government.