Thursday, December 17, 2015
Phoenix auto dealer who scammed customers works for IRS
PHOENIX — The owner of a used-car dealership who admitted defrauding dozens of desperate customers is a longtime employee of the Internal Revenue Service.
At the same time Gina Colombo told authorities that she took advantage of poor and non-English-speaking customers at Uncle Joe's Auto Sales, she also worked at the IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center in Phoenix.
An investigation by The
Arizona Republic found that Colombo has been employed by the IRS since 1998 — and she remained employed after state prosecutors shut down Uncle Joe's and filed a consumer-fraud lawsuit against Colombo and her husband, Joseph Carrecia, in March.
Neither Colombo nor Carrecia returned messages left at their homes and offices.
IRS officials last week confirmed Colombo's employment. They would not explain whether her admissions of fraud in the civil lawsuit preclude her from working for the agency.
IRS officials declined to discuss the nature of Colombo's work or if she had access to sensitive personal information at the assistance center, one of dozens across the country that provides face-to-face help for taxpayers on a walk-in basis.
The centers were established to give taxpayers the option of talking directly to an IRS representative in order to resolve problems or ask questions on tax laws. They help with tax letters, arrange payment plans, arrange interpreters, and provide copies of transcripts and past tax returns, among other things.
The Republic also found Colombo's husband, Carrecia, is currently employed at another area used-car dealership despite a court order prohibiting him from such work.
Carrecia, who goes by the name
Joseph Colombo, is a salesman at Champion Remarketing Division, which boasts an online inventory of 35 used cars. Champion owner Raymond Reccelli said Monday that Carrecia worked as recently as last weekend.
Garcia said Monday her office would initiate an investigation into Carrecia's employment. If he violated the settlement terms, it could result in a contempt-of-court order and leave him facing $335,000 in civil penalties.
Colombo, 41, and Carrecia, 42, both of
Peoria, agreed to pay $70,000 in restitution and at least $30,000 in penalties to settle the consumer-fraud lawsuit, which accused them of targeting people who could not qualify for traditional auto loans.
They admitted luring customers to Uncle Joe's with false advertisements, misrepresenting the condition of cars, overcharging on license and registration fees, creating bogus contracts, refusing to return down payments on cars they didn't sell, and failing to honor warranties.
Although Colombo was listed as the sole owner of the dealership on
Arizona Corporation Commission records, it's unclear how much involvement she had in day-to-day operations at Uncle Joe's.
Carrecia, who was convicted of a Florida burglary in 2002, served as general manager.
As part of the settlement, Colombo admitted she "approved, endorsed, directed, ratified, controlled or otherwise participated in the acts and practices of Uncle Joe's."
Colombo surrendered her Arizona license to sell motor vehicles in February.
IRS officials, citing the federal Privacy Act, declined to say if they were aware of the state's investigation, or if Colombo's admission of fraud triggered an internal investigation.
They confirmed last week that Colombo works as a management and program assistant and earns a base annual salary between $34,662 and $45,057. Her name is listed in a lobby directory of the Taxpayer Assistance Center at 4041 N. Central Ave. in Phoenix.
There are eight other assistance centers in Arizona, including in Mesa, Glendale and Tucson.
Colombo listed the IRS as her sole income in a 2010
Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing. Carrecia told the court he was unemployed.
Colombo said she earned about $3,854.50 per month, or $46,000 annually. She reported debts totaling $427,164 more than nine times her income.
Colombo and Carrecia said they had about $362,566 in unsecured credit debt, including a $147,000 revolving line of credit from
Colombo said she had an average take-home pay of $2,678 and expenses of $3,319. The court discharged the bankruptcy in March 2011.
Colombo opened Uncle Joe's three years later in February 2014. It stayed in business for just eight months and racked up dozens of consumer complaints, including 30 with the Arizona Attorney General's Office.
According to the Attorney General's Office, Colombo and Carrecia frequently baited customers through
Craigslist advertisements as "a ploy to get consumers to come and look at other available motor vehicles on their lot."
The lawsuit said Colombo and her husband convinced customers to buy vehicles with promises to make repairs that were never completed. The lawsuit also accused them of overcharging customers hundreds of dollars in license, filing, registration and other fees.
As part of the settlement agreement, the Attorney General's Office agreed to waive $335,000 in civil penalties.
However, if the court finds Colombo and Carrecia violated any settlement prohibitions, "the court shall enter judgments against the defendants, in favor of the state, for the civil penalty award in the amount of $335,000, which will become immediately due and payable with interest thereon at 10 percent," according to the settlement.