There was nothing complex or brilliant about the scheme that a Niagara Falls businessman used to cheat the Internal Revenue Service out of more than a half-million dollars.
Computer consultant Gregory S. Fisher simply lied on his tax returns for three years, vastly inflating the amount of federal income tax that had been withheld from his earnings.
The numbers submitted by Fisher were blatantly false, but the scheme fooled the IRS, which sent him three whopping refund checks -- totaling $503,263 -- for the tax years 2004, 2005 and 2006.
Only later -- after federal agents learned that Fisher had cheated a local car dealer out of $1.2 million and used that money to buy gold bars and silver coins -- was the tax fraud scheme uncovered.
So Fisher, 46, who lives in North Tonawanda, wound up pleading guilty Wednesday to two felony charges in Buffalo's federal courthouse. He also agreed to pay more than $2.1 million in restitution to the IRS, West Herr Ford in Hamburg and other victims.
Agents from the Buffalo FBI office and the IRS Criminal Division began investigating the scam artist last year after learning of his suspicious dealings with the car dealer, said Assistant U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy.
"We're just very thankful that, in this case, we were able to recover pretty much everything that was stolen from the victims," Kennedy said. "You rarely get this much restitution for the victims."
But he and IRS officials declined to say exactly how Fisher was able to dupe the IRS, an agency that is generally regarded as paying close attention to detail when it comes to examining tax returns.
According to court papers:
*Fisher filed a 2004 tax return claiming that $308,459 in federal income tax was withheld from his earnings, when, in fact, the true amount was zero.
*He filed a 2005 return claiming $660,486 in federal income tax was withheld, when the true amount was zero.
*He filed a 2006 return claiming $341,974 in federal income tax was withheld, when, once again, the true amount was zero.
*The bogus tax returns led the IRS to send Fisher a total of $503,263 in refunds, which Fisher admitted in court Wednesday that he should never have received.
The IRS "is determined to stop these false tax refund schemes," said Patricia J. Haynes, a special agent in charge of IRS criminal investigations in New York State. "The message this case sends is that participation in refund fraud schemes does not pay, and those who do will be prosecuted."
IRS officials declined to comment when asked if Fisher submitted any documentation to back his false claims, how often such schemes are successful, or what steps are taken to prevent them.
Fisher and his attorney, James Monroe, appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Hugh B. Scott on Wednesday afternoon. Fisher pleaded guilty to felony charges of tax fraud and scheming to defraud.
Under federal sentencing guidelines, Fisher is likely to face a prison term of somewhere between two years and 51 months, Scott said.
"I'm prepared to accept the consequences," Fisher told the judge.
According to Kennedy, Fisher's schemes came to light last year, after Hamburg police told federal prosecutors and the FBI about the businessman's dealings with the West Herr Automotive Group.
Fisher agreed to buy 49 vehicles from the dealership for use in a disaster-response business. Fisher told the auto dealer that he needed to have all of the vehicles upgraded with sophisticated computers, generators and other equipment.
Fisher said the upgrades would cost $18,000 to $116,000 per vehicle, and he told the dealer he wanted the upgrades to be done by VRTS Sales & Development, a company in Middlefield, Conn., according to court papers.
The deal called for Fisher to pay a portion of the upgrade costs and West Herr to pay the rest.
But VRTS turned out to be a shell company, owned by Fisher. The upgrade work was never done, and Fisher took delivery of only one vehicle from the auto dealer.
Fisher used more than $1.2 million that he scammed from West Herr to buy gold ingots, gold coins and about 200 gift cards for local stores, Kennedy said.
Once FBI agents caught up to him, Fisher admitted all his criminal activities "fairly quickly," Kennedy said.