Sen. Nelson wants to crack down on inmate tax scams.

ORLANDO – Around this time of year, businesses start sending out W2 forms to their employees, listing how much they earned last year, so they can start the arduous task of figuring out how much they owe the federal government in taxes.  If they’re lucky, they may have overpaid and are expecting a refund.

Or they could be among the millions of Americans whose tax dollars go to support something else entirely: inmates in prison who file false tax forms to get refunds for work they didn’t do, and couldn’t have done behind they were behind bars.

Inmates in Florida prisons and county jails don't have access to computers or the Internet, so it's harder for them to file bous tax claims.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, has joined three of his colleagues on an effort to coinvince the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Internal Revenue Service to work together to enforce a 2008 law that stops this practice in state and federal prisons across the nation.

Nelson has been working on this effort since 2005, when he first asked Congress to investigate how widespread the problem of inmate tax scams is and to identify ways to safeguard the prison system so it will be difficult, if not impossible, for prisoners to cheat the government — and taxpayers.

As Nelson noted in a 2005 press release from his office, “Convicts should go to prison to pay their debts to society, not to rip off American taxpayers.”

Now the Florida senator has teamed up with Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y, Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, to put more teeth in that earlier effort. The scam is easy: Nelson’s office said prisoners typically use their own names or the names of their friends to file bogus tax claims in order to get refund checks.

In 2005, Nelson’s office reported that two inmates serving long sentences in Florida prisons for murder got some help from a few outsiders, and filed phony tax returns that netted them refunds of about $5,000 from the IRS for wages they never earned. 

The Florida senator cited other examples: an inmate at Missouri Eastern Correctional Center filed a fake tax return for himself and 65 other inmates while serving time in 2002. Prosecutors later estimated that the scheme cost taxpayers more than $73,000.

A year later, the senator’s office noted, two inmates at the Carson City Correctional Facility in Michigan were sentenced to an additional 27 months in prison after authorities found out they had planned to file false tax returns on behalf of fellow prisoners.  The refunds they were expecting totaled more than $46,000. 

The senator said access to the Internet at correctional facilities across the country could be making it easier for inmates to file these phony returns.

Inmates don’t have similar online access in Florida’s state prisons or county jails, making it harder for inmates to scam the government. 

“State prison inmates do not have access to the Internet,” said Gretl Pressinger, public information officer for the Florida Department of Corrections.  “We have computers they can do typing on, and some computer classes, but they have no capability to go online.”

 As of June 2009, Florida had 146 prison facilities, including 62 major institutions, 45 work/forestry camps, one treatment center, 33 work release centers and five road prisons.  It costs the state $18,980 a year, or $52 a day, to feed, clothe, house and provide medical services for an inmate at a state facility, and $15,443 at a prison for adult males, the majority of people incarcerated in the Florida prison system.  Florida’s recidivism rate is 33 percent, meaning one of every three inmates released from a state prison returns there within three years.

According to the Federal Bureau of Prison’s Inmate Handbook, inmates are only allowed to spend up to $290 a month for purchases on their commissary account at the prison canteen. Once a month, each inmate account is “validated,” meaning that’s the start of their spending period.  Deposits to commissary accounts are made from outside sources, including family, friends and associates.

Prison Unit Managers can also approve withdrawals for the payment of fines, restitution for losses, and other financial obligations that include court or attorney fees and the purchase of legal books.

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Despite its small size, Tavares becomes a hub for intermodal travel.

TAVARES — Think inter-modal transportation hub, and you probably think Jacksonville or New Orleans, maybe closer to home in Tampa or Orlando – but not little old Tavares.

And yet, Tavares has all the ingredients to become just that.

A float plane taxis out from the shore in December at the Tavares seaplane base and marina.

This Lake County city has trains, planes and boats — including two water taxis.  And while the Lake County public bus system is not extensive, it does exist.  The focal point of it all is the seaplane base and marina in downtown Tavares.
On a visit earlier this month, there were a handful of amphibious flying boats and float planes on the ramp, several float planes on the shore,
dozens of boats (mainly pontoons) at the boat slips, the odd speed boat on the lake, the occasional pedestrian-with-dog on the walkways, a fair amount of traffic at the restaurant on site, and on the veranda of the two-story wooden “Prop Shop,” an off-duty pilot was relaxing in the sun, playing his “axe,” and singing along.

Greg “Coop” Cooperman plays a mellow accordion and a mean jazz harmonica, and does not have a bad singing voice. A resident of Alaska, Cooperman says, “I’m here to fly seaplanes in the warm weather.”

Around the corner, on another rocking chair, facility manager Captain John Ruggeri took in the scenery and noted, “I have the best office in the world …
I’ve been blessed.”

Reflecting on the impact seaplanes are having locally, Ruggeri say that at the nearby restaurant, whenever a seaplane lands or takes off, “everything
stops.”

An amphibious flying boat taxies into the water on Jan. 12 at the Tavares seaplane base and marina.

At this point, there are not a lot of seaplanes at Tavares.  Ruggeri says that the busiest “normal” day they’ve had was 14 planes “on the
ramp,” and that opening day on April 10, 2010, they had 48.

The facility has two water taxis, obtained as a federal grant. At this point, the taxis only operate during special events, providing a scenic way to travel
between the cities of Tavares and Mount Dora, both on Lake Dora. There isn’t yet the demand to make regular runs between the two cities.  The train tracks run right by the seaplane base.  Right now, the only train traffic is the occasional excursion, run by the Eustis-based Florida Rail
Adventures.  The tracks themselves, however, are central to a plan to run commuter rail from Orlando into Lake County, along the U.S. 441 corridor.

The story of the Tavares Seaplane Base & Marina started in 2004, with the shuttering of a large citrus packing plant on Lake Dora in downtown Tavares.  With all that waterfront real estate opening up, city officials got creative in their search for ways to revitalize downtown.  Searching for a niche, they became “America’s Seaplane City.”

Birds scatter from a dock at the Tavares seaplane base and marina.

The “Prop Shop” is housed in a replica of the 1871 Woodlea House.  The original, considered one of Tavares’ most important historic structures, was destroyed by arson in 2007.
For more information about activities at the seaplane base, visit the city’s Website at www.tavares.org.

Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com

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City leaders remember the devastating earthquake in Haiti one year later.

ORLANDO – For Marjory Sheba, the images were so strong and horrific, so quick to scar the psyche, that she recalled them through words of poetry.

“Three-hundred and sixty-five days and counting,” Sheba said.  “Our people are suffering.  They’ve suffered before, but now their hearts are tearing.”

Wednesday marked the one year anniversary of the devastating earthquake that caused so much damage, destruction and death in the nation of Haiti. It was a catastrophic magnitude 7.0 earthquake, with an epicentre near the town of Leogane, about 16 miles west of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Price.  It happened on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2010, and by Jan. 24, at least 52 aftershocks measuring 4.5 or greater had been recorded. It’s been estimated that three million people were impacted by the quake, with up to 234,000 killed.

“The Earth shook and swallowed us in,” said Sheba, a resident of Haiti who su

People attending the "Remembering Haiti ... The Earthquake" one year commemoration brought along donation goods for the victims.

rvived the devastation, and was in Orlando on Wednesday to take part in a ceremony marking the one year anniversary date.

“Massacred our loved ones and families,” she said.  “Help did come from distant shores. Ninety days – billions raised.  But we died in massive numbers, still.”

Sheba was one of several speakers who took part in “Remembering Haiti … The Earthquake,” a commemoration ceremony sponsored by Orlando City Commissioner Samuel B. Ings, and held in the main rotunda of Orlando City Hall.  It was an event that featured Haiti food, music, dancing, and an continued effort to collect donations for the people of Haiti, with a list of recommended items that included toiletries, new and gently used clothing, school supplies, sporting goods, and more.

Dominique Mathurin sings the Star Spangled Banner while Monica May, host of the "Remembering Haiti ... The Earthquake" ceremony looks on at Orlando City Hall.

But it was also a time to solumnly mark the terrible loss of life in that nation, and the challenges that face ongoing relief efforts for the victims of the quake.

“This time last year at approximately 4:15 p.m., the first foundations were torn across borders in Haiti,” said Monica May, the host of the Tom Joyner Morning Show and news/community affairs director at STAR 94.5 COX Radio station in Orlando.  “A sound like none we have ever heard was heard at this time in Haiti.  We are here tonight to remember Haiti, to remember the lives that were lost, to remember the families that were lost.”

U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, whose district includes parts of Orlando, said she got a congressional briefing last week about the situation in Haiti, and it continues to frustrate members of Congress that “billions of dollars was allocated to the people of Haiti, and they’re still waiting.”

Brown blamed that on the disputed Nov. 28 Haitian presidential election.  The results have been held up due to allegations of fraud, and there have been calls for a new election to be held.

“It’s an example of when the government doesn’t work, the people suffer,” Brown said.  “There’s still over a million people in tents – in tents, still.  Not acceptable.”

Sheba described her people as being “sick from the corruption clutching our airs,” and said it was deplorable that a year later, they’re still waiting for so much of that help to arrive.

“The reason why we’re waiting still – just inexcuable,” she said.  “We cry out for justice.” 

Judeson Jean Juste, a survivor the earthquake in Haiti, sings the Haitian National Anthem at Orlando City Hall.

But there was also a sense of hope at the event, a feeling that people could be inspired to join in the relief effort, and come together as an extended family.

“We thank our family – those of you who are in the seats here with us,” May said, while Brown added, “Hopefully this is going to be a new beginning.”

Ings noted that the ceremony was “a cultural event that celebrates the Haitian culture while bringing awareness of the continued needs of the people of Haiti.”

And while he thanked those who made donations, and those who showed up to demonstrate their support for the people of Haiti, he also urged the guests at City Hall to enjoy the music, entertainment, and especially the food that was being provided there.

“The reception line is open,” Ings said, shortly before the speaking program started.  “So you’re welcome to all the food here.”

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