The federal government takes fraud seriously, particularly when it is the victim. Individuals charged with defrauding federal programs often face severe sentences if convicted, and in many cases, those sentences are “enhanced” under federal guidelines to account for other things such as the defendant’s refusal to cooperate with investigators.
Take the recent case of Shonda Renee Stubblefield. Last year, the Houston-area woman received a six-year prison sentence after prosecutors charged her with defrauding a federal highway program. According to evidence presented at Stubblefield’s trial, she requested and received roughly $126,000 in federal grants through the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC).
The H-GAC funds were supposed to help local companies reduce traffic congestion by promoting “teleworking” programs. Through her company, Stubblefield claimed she employed about 500 people who were telecommuting. The H-GAC funds were meant to subsidize these telework positions.
But in reality, prosecutors said, Stubblefield simply created fake employees to obtain the grant funds. In 2014, an H-GAC auditor went to Stubblefield’s office and demanded she produce written personnel files and other documentation regarding her teleworking employees. In response, Stubblefield either did not respond to the requests or provided false information. H-GAC subsequently canceled Stubblefield’s grant and referred her to the U.S. Attorney’s office for prosecution.
Stubblefield was found guilty of a number of white collar crimes, including mail fraud, wire fraud, and aggravated identity theft. A pre-sentencing report advised Stubblefield’s sentence to be enhanced under federal guidelines due to her “obstruction of justice.” This was not one of the original criminal charges against Stubblefield. Rather, it was a post-sentencing allegation based on Stubblefield providing false information to the H-GAC auditor. In response, Stubblefield argued the auditor was not conducting an “official investigation,” so the obstruction enhancement was not justified. The trial court disagreed and, accounting for the obstruction enhancement, sentenced Stubblefield to 72 months (or 6 years) in prison.
Stubblefield appealed the obstruction enhancement to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. But in a decision issued on November 7, 2019, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s decision on this issue. Whether H-GAC itself was a “governmental entity” was irrelevant, the appeals court said. Rather, the sentencing guidelines look at whether a defendant attempted to willfully “obstruct justice with respect to the investigation, prosecution, or sentencing of the instant offense of conviction.” In this case, Stubblefield believed there “was or would be a governmental investigation” into her conduct, and that she “acted to obstruct or impede that investigation.”
Speak with a Houston White Collar Crime Lawyer Today
If you are the target of any type of government or official audit, the worst thing you can do is lie or provide false information. Instead, the first thing you should do is to speak with an experienced Houston white collar criminal defense attorney who can help protect your interests while making sure you do not dig yourself in deeper. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates in Houston, Galveston, or League City today if you need immediate assistance. Call (281) 280-0100.