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Sentencing looms for L.A. County welfare worker who scammed the needy

Trang Van Dinh admitted to using aid recipients' identities to file false tax returns, receiving $1.1 million. He said he was desperate to repay gambling debts.

May 28, 2011|By Stuart Pfeifer, Los Angeles Times

As a Los Angeles County welfare worker, Trang Van Dinh was the face who stood between the needy and the public assistance checks that helped them survive.

But instead of assisting the unemployed and impoverished people who came to him for help, Dinh used their personal information to file false tax returns in their names — with refunds electronically transferred to bank accounts he controlled, federal prosecutors contend.

All told, prosecutors say, Dinh filed 197 returns seeking more than $2 million in refunds between 2009 and 2010. The Internal Revenue Service issued Dinh more than $1.1 million in refunds before he was arrested last year. In February, Dinh pleaded guilty to two counts of filing false tax returns. He is scheduled to be sentenced June 27 at the federal courthouse in Los Angeles.

He had acknowledged to county investigators that he filed the returns in a desperate attempt to repay gambling debts.

Many victims had a difficult time getting refunds to which they were entitled because Dinh had already filed fraudulent returns in their names, said Assistant U.S. Atty. Angela J. Davis, who is prosecuting the case.

Prosecutors are recommending a 46-month prison sentence.

That doesn't sound like enough to Lisa Leber, a San Gabriel resident whose name and Social Security number were used by Dinh to file a false tax return. She said it took more than a year before she received her 2009 tax refund, which she said was "in the thousands" of dollars and was significant to her and her teenage daughter.

"You count on tax refunds as a single parent and then you're told it's not coming," Leber said. "I tried to send my daughter to a special summer camp, but I couldn't because the money was gone. It's really hard to look at your child and say, 'I'm really sorry, but I have to say no because this was taken from us.' "

Dinh's attorney, Neha A. Mehta of the federal public defender's office, declined to comment.

Dinh, 62, was arrested in June 2010 as he returned from a trip to Vietnam. The county had fired Dinh months earlier after he acknowledged to county investigators that he stole identities from clients and filed false returns because of a gambling problem.

Davis, the federal prosecutor, said the case was particularly egregious because of the harm Dinh caused to needy people.

"The people in his case file were people who were seeking public assistance, food stamps, CalWorks, so we have to assume that those were people who were low-income to begin with," Davis said. "To the extent that they were delayed in getting their federal tax refunds, that could very well have had a significant impact."

Leber said the damage went beyond the delayed access to her tax refund.

"He broke a trust," she said. "Now when I go in and I do anything, I take their name. I write down the date and what I did with them. People you should trust, I don't trust them anymore."

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