SC: Jury begins mulling charges against Williamsburg County sheriff in novel fraud scheme (UPDATED with verdicts)

John Monk reports:

A federal jury on Friday afternoon began deliberating the case in which the suspended Williamsburg County sheriff and a Columbia businessman were charged with fraud in connection with a scheme involving hundreds of alleged false identity theft reports.

Earlier Friday, the jury heard lawyers’ closing arguments that offered sharp contrasts of Michael Johnson, the suspended sheriff, and Columbia credit repair businessman Lester Woods.

Read more on The State.

This really is a bizarre case, as I don’t recall ever hearing of a fraud scheme like this one before. The sheriff is accused of creating false identity theft reports that went to a credit repair businessman, who allegedly used them to get the individuals’ debts forgiven by Equifax, billing the consumers for his services, of course. It is not clear whether the 130 consumers were totally in the dark as to how the businessman was improving their credit.

And along the way, other people in the sheriff’s office reportedly passed along the reports of identity theft, never suspecting that the reports had been fabricates.

In previous coverage of the case, John Monk explains as succinctly as anyone can:

An FBI agent told a federal jury Thursday that suspended Williamsburg County Sheriff Michael Johnson admitted in a 2013 interview that he had created numerous official police reports alleging cases of identity theft.

Agent Ron Grosse testified that the then-sheriff admitted that he had done no checking to verify that the people he was saying were victims actually had had their identities stolen.

“He told me he had no idea if these people were victims of identity theft,” Grosse testified to a jury of eight women and four men.

But under cross-examination by Johnson’s attorney Debbie Barbier, Grosse also acknowledged that he had found no clear evidence – such as large deposits of money in the sheriff’s bank accounts – that Johnson, 39, made any money from creating the reports and sending them to a Columbia businessman.

That businessman, Lester Woods, 49, of Columbia, is on trial with Johnson. Both are charged with wire fraud conspiracy in an alleged credit repair scheme.

So who’s the victim here? The federal prosecutor tried to make the case that Equifax is the victim, but are they really a victim if the (only harm) to them is that 130 credit reports are now misleading or inaccurate? I mean, how many other credit reports are also inaccurate on a daily basis?

And what about the consumers who used Woods’ service? What happened to their credit ratings after the scheme unravelled? Did Equifax revert to poor credit ratings for them? Did they just lose all that money they paid to Woods?

There’s an awful lot I don’t understand about this case.

UPDATE: Both the sheriff and the businessman were found guilty on charges to commit wire fraud. John Monk’s report indicates that Woods’ customers knew nothing about the scam:

During trial, Holliday put up 24 former Woods clients who testified they didn’t know an identity theft report had been made in their names to the Williamsburg County sheriff’s office. Some had never heard of Williamsburg.

So the customers were not part of the conspiracy, but it’s still not clear to me what happens now to their credit ratings, etc. On a positive note, it appears that it was Equifax who detected the scheme and reported it to the FBI.

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