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Broward couple convicted of BP oil-spill fraud sent to prison for 13 years

Their last address was a waterfront McMansion in Lighthouse Point.

Their ride was a Bentley when the feds busted them last fall.

On Wednesday, a federal judge sent convicted serial scammers Joseph Harvey and wife Anja Karin Kannell to prison for 13 years. Their crime: stealing the identities of about 600 people and filing about $3 million in phony claims for oil-spill and natural-disaster relief payments in others’ names.

“The defendants were leeches on the public and the government of the United States ... to support a lavish lifestyle,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Watts-FitzGerald told the judge.

Their defense attorneys tried to persuade the judge to give Harvey, 53, and Kannell, 42, parents of a seven-year-old daughter, less time behind bars.

Harvey apologized to the judge, admitting that he even stole the identity of his own brother, an attorney who works for the Miami-Dade School Board. He also tried to shift the blame to himself so the judge might be more lenient on his wife.

“My wife only did what I informed her to do,” Harvey said. “She did have some involvement, but not like my involvement.”

But Senior U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King, citing the couple’s expensive homes, cars and boats, wouldn’t budge as he gave each of them the same punishment.

“They intended to get as much money as they possibly could from the claims they submitted,” King said, echoing the prosecutor’s point.

Harvey and Kannell, in custody since their arrests, were found guilty in June of a slew of charges involving fraud and ID theft. In total, they collected about $725,000 from a handful of duped federal agencies. Half of that money was paid by a federally established program to help victims of the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010.

The relief program was financed with BP’s $20 billion donation to aid people and businesses damaged by the Deepwater Horizon oil-rig explosion, which gushed crude into the Gulf Coast for months.

Any person or business in the United States or foreign countries could file compensation claims for lost wages or other economic damages caused by the disaster. But they needed to submit proof, including income tax returns and other financial records.

The BP trust fund, formally known as the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, attracted thousands of fraudulent applications, leading to Justice Department prosecutions of about 110 people nationwide. Of those, eight have been charged with BP-related fraud in South Florida.

At trial, a Miami federal jury found that Harvey and Kannell filed claims totaling $1.26 million under the assumed identities of 34 people residing in Florida. They used those actual names and their Social Security numbers, but submitted addresses for them in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle.

According to trial evidence, the BP relief program paid $366,000 to the couple through bank accounts set up under fictitious names in Texas. Harvey and Kannell then used debit cards issued under the fake names to withdraw cash from ATM machines in South Florida.

In addition, the two were convicted of filing at least 47 fraudulent relief claims in Louisiana with the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the aftermath of hurricanes Gustav and Ike in 2008. They filed similar claims for damage assistance after severe storms and flooding in Mississippi last year.

The jury also found that Harvey and Kannell filed 76 fraudulent claims with state unemployment agencies in North Dakota and New York, following other major storms last year.

Another target of their schemes: the Internal Revenue Service. The agency issued the couple more than $284,000 in income-tax refunds based on stolen identities and fabricated returns.

Watts-FitzGerald, the prosecutor, said the couple’s tax-refund scheme was typical of dozens of similar cases in South Florida. “It’s a huge problem,” he told the judge.