Pamella Watson was once a symbol of success in South Florida’s Jamaican community: As a Miami CPA, she advised hundreds of clients, owned a beautiful home in Davie, and supported local charities as well as politicians in her native country.
But Watson, dressed in prison garb, struck a starkly different profile in Fort Lauderdale federal court on Thursday. She was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison for pocketing millions of dollars in false income-tax refunds from the U.S. government.
A weeping Watson, jailed since her arrest in May, admitted to U.S. District Judge James Cohn that she “made a bad decision on a practical and moral level” — then apologized to him, her family and victims.
“Since I have broken my fiduciary trust with them, I ask for their forgiveness,” said Watson, who drew about 35 supporters to her sentencing. “Some of them are still mad at me today.”
Watson, 61, pleaded guilty in September to a single wire-fraud offense. According to court records, Watson exploited about 200 unwitting clients — many among Jamaica’s diaspora in South Florida — by changing their actual tax returns and filing inflated refund claims totaling more than $3.6 million without their knowledge over a four-year period. She kept most of that money, while issuing actual refunds to her clients.
Watson’s defense attorney asked the judge to give her a more lenient sentence of 3 1/2 years, saying she deserved a break because she has agreed to return a chunk of the money stolen from the Internal Revenue Service. Among the assets being turned over: about $660,000 that she held in bank accounts in Jamaica, an additional $586,000 from real estate sales in South Florida, and possibly another $350,000 from the pending sale of her Davie home.
“She has stripped herself of everything,” Fort Lauderdale attorney Bruce Rogow told the judge. “She is destitute.”
Prosecutor Neil Karadbill called her scheme “affinity fraud — people who were from the Jamaican community.” But he recommended a sentence of just over five years because of her restitution to the U.S. government.
But the judge, after listening to the prosecutor read three letters from Watson’s victims, said the once-prominent accountant abused her position of trust and her professional license to exploit hundreds of clients over several years to steal millions from the U.S. Treasury Department.
“I understand both sides are asking for a downward departure [from 6 1/2 years] based on her extraordinary restitution,” Cohn said. “But quite honestly, I don’t think she deserves it in this case, so I’m going to decline.”
Watson deceived the IRS by keeping $3.4 million in “excessive” tax refunds for herself and giving the clients their actual refunds between 2011 and 2014, according to court records. She avoided detection by splitting the refund deposits into bank accounts that she controlled through her tax preparation business.
Watson also used another $279,000 in IRS check payments made by some of her clients to pay off her own income-tax obligations, records show.
“Watson’s clients did not know that she was filing tax returns with the IRS that were different than the copy provided to them,” said Kelly R. Jackson, special agent in charge of IRS criminal investigations in South Florida. “Watson had an obligation as a paid preparer to file accurate tax returns for her clients, but instead she betrayed them and stole from the government to line her own pockets.”
Watson, a naturalized U.S. citizen, worked as a certified public accountant at her tax preparation office in Miami. She once hosted a fundraiser on behalf of Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller and another at her lavish Davie home for former Prime Minister Andrew Holness. Watson was involved in numerous South Florida organizations and served on several boards, including the Jamaican Women of South Florida.
After her arrest by IRS agents in May, a magistrate judge described Watson as a “well-educated professional who clearly knew that what she was doing was wrong.”