Coriana Ifopo to change plea in filing false IRS tax returns for local residents

fili@samoanews.com

An American Samoan woman accused of filing false tax returns with the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for local residents intends to change her plea, according to her attorney in recent court filings at the federal court in Anchorage, Alaska.

Coriana Ifopo, 54, was arrested in Honolulu on July 11, 2017 and charged under a 28-count indictment handed down June 20th by a federal grand jury in Anchorage, where she appeared on July 14th and entered a 'not guilty' plea to filing fraudulent tax returns with the IRS for local residents, who do not qualify for the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).

The indictment shows 28 individuals, identified in court documents by their initials, with the dates of when the returns were filed with the IRS or when the IRS refunds were issued.

Total loss to the IRS — shown in the indictment — based on the amounts for the 28 individuals is $167,000, although the US Justice Department had an estimated loss of more than $1.3 million.

The government alleges that Ifopo’s crime occurred between 2013 and 2015 with the first IRS refund check issued May 20, 2014 and the last one on Feb. 20, 2016. US Assistant Attorney, Aunnie Steward said Ifopo filed tax returns on behalf of over 200 other individuals living in American Samoa - all these individuals don’t qualify for the EITC.

Late last week, Ifopo’s attorney, Assistant Federal Defender Jamie McGrady, filed a notice with the court about the defendant’s “intent to change her plea in this matter and intends to proceed without a written plea agreement.”

Final pretrial conference and trial are scheduled for Nov.  27, 2017 while a status hearing is presently scheduled for Nov. 13th, according to McGrady’s notice.

Ifopo requests that the final pretrial conference and trial scheduled for Nov. 27 be vacated and a proposed change of plea hearing be set for a date and time convenient to the Court and parties in late November, it says.

Early this week the court vacated all hearings set for this month and scheduled the “change of plea hearing” for Dec. 6th before US District Court Judge, Timothy M. Burgess.

Earlier court filings by the defense estimate the “actual loss in false tax returns paid out by the IRS is $167,000” due to the Ifopo’s alleged crime; however “the intended loss could exceed $1 million.” It also notes the large volume of discovery of over 8,000 pages and 121 financial spreadsheets.

Ifopo, who resides in Waipahu, Hawai’i, is released on her own recognizance and travel is prohibited to the island of Oahu, Hawai’i and Alaska, according to court documents, which also outlined various conditions of release. The defendant may “voluntarily participate in stress and anxiety counseling” as arranged by Pretrial Services.

According to the US Justice Department, the law provides for a maximum sentence of five years in prison for each count and a $250,000 fine or both. Under federal sentencing statutes, the actual sentence imposed will be based upon the seriousness of the offenses and the prior criminal history, if any, of the defendant.

Ifopo is so far the second known case of a American Samoan charged by the federal government for falsely filing tax returns with the IRS for local residents, in order to claim the EITC. The first case was against Pepe Anetipa in December 2014 - also at the Anchorage federal court. In November 2015, Anetipa was sentenced to 30 months in prison and ordered to pay restitution of more than $200,000 to the IRS.

SOME AMERICAN SAMOA FILERS STILL WILLING TO TAKE THE RISK

Despite these two cases, Samoa News continues to receive reports about some local residents still filing taxes through the IRS, using another person and an address in the US.

As the new tax filing season nears, there are still residents, wiling to take the risk of filing taxes in the US - all for the purpose of getting a “huge tax refund check” by claiming the EITC, according to local residents who either contacted Samoa News or were contacted by the paper.

“When people are desperate they do stupid things, even violating the law,” said a local male resident, who claims to know of at least three local tax payers planning “to again” file taxes through their “connection” in the US.

 “The local economy is not doing well and people are getting less money to spend. They are looking at ways to get additional income,” said the male resident.

Another local resident said yesterday that “local tax payers who are able to get away with getting huge refunds, show off their illegal gains by telling other family members or friends, who then want to do the same thing: file taxes in America.”

“It all comes down to the large amount of tax refund as the reason people file taxes off island,” said a local attorney, who only commented as part of background information for this story. “It's illegal but people are desperate. Take a look at the current economic situation, people are temporarily out of jobs, while others have working hours reduced.”

Those who spoke with Samoa News believe the only way for local residents to halt filing taxes in the US is when the federal government starts “arresting these local residents” and teaching them a lesson.

“Your newspaper and other media can report all you want about these illegal tax filings with the IRS, but people will still do it, unless the federal government gets to the root of the problem — the local residents themselves,” said one of the individuals, who has worked in ASG for many years and continues to hear about people filing taxes off island.

It remains unclear whether or not the federal government will ever go after these local residents with prosecutors targeting the tax preparers — such as Ifopo and Anetipa — to recoup IRS losses.

According to the indictment against Ifopo, there were eight tax refund claims or checks issued that were more than $8,000 with the highest tax refund in the amount of $8,918 for “M.L” filed or issued around Mar. 2, 2015. There were several checks with refunds of more than $7,000; $6,000 and $5,000. The smallest tax refund filed or check issued for a refund was $1,043.

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