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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Woman claims heir's cash

By Jim Smith
Philadelphia Daily News

Abigail Roberts is 61 years old, lives with her husband in a well-worn Chester, Pa., house and cleans tables in a college cafeteria.

But she believes she is a Hawaiian princess.

"I know I am" a princess, she said firmly, seated last week at her cluttered dining room table with a thick file folder in her hands, filled with legal pleadings and correspondence relating to her claims of royalty.

Last month, she cashed in on her alleged royal roots, when the Internal Revenue Service mistakenly sent Roberts and her husband a $2.1 million tax refund.

The gaffe exposed the soft underbelly of the IRS — an agency that proved frighteningly easy to fool into divulging confidential tax documents and quick to disgorge money that should have been held in somebody else's name.

Abigail Kinoiki Kekaulike Kawananakoa is an heiress to Campbell Estate.

Advertiser library photo

The refund, according to court records, came from money that Campbell Estate heiress Abigail Kinoiki Kekaulike Kawananakoa, 78, had deposited with the IRS to cover her own estimated income taxes.

Kawananakoa had no comment. "In deference to the request of law enforcement authorities, Ms. Kawananakoa is declining any comment at this time," her attorney, Jim Wright, told The Advertiser yesterday.

Chester's "princess," Abigail Roberts, whose birth name was Charlotte Veronica Kuheana, used Kawananakoa's Social Security number on her and her husband's tax return, despite previous warnings from the IRS that use of someone else's number is illegal.

Roberts claims the Social Security number is hers — a claim the IRS flatly rejects.

"It is mine. They're saying I'm not who I say I am," said Roberts, who works in the Widener University cafeteria cleaning tables.

"I am the last heir," she insisted.

Using seizure warrants, the IRS got most of the tax refund back earlier this month from Wachovia Bank.

Now the IRS is suing Roberts and her husband to recover the balance.

"An erroneous refund of this magnitude is a rare occurrence," said IRS spokesman Bill Cressman.

A source familiar with the case said the IRS could have avoided such a costly blunder.

"There were 50 million red flags," the source said, referring to Abigail Roberts' history of run-ins with federal tax collectors.

Tax-refund fraud alleged

This year was not the first time that the IRS sent an erroneous tax refund to Abigail Roberts.

Roberts was acquitted in federal court in Philadelphia, in 2001, of an alleged tax-refund fraud totaling more than $34,000 involving Bishop Estate.

At her trial, her court-appointed federal public defenders, attorneys Edson Bostic and Joyce Webb Eubanks, claimed that she was suffering from "confused, irrational and obsessive behavior."

After a three-day nonjury trial, on Sept. 6, 2001, U.S. District Judge William H. Yohn Jr. ruled that the evidence against her was "insufficient" to show that she had an intent to commit a crime.

The judge "admonished" her "not to engage in this type of conduct again, because she had no legal right to the proceeds of the estate," an IRS agent noted in a sworn statement filed in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.

This year, she used Abigail Kawananakoa's Social Security number on a joint tax return that she and her husband, James K. Roberts, filed on March 8.

Their 2003 joint tax return reflected income of $4,715, and an earned income credit of $371.

They had it sent to the IRS, electronically. The return sought a refund of $361.

Instead, because the Kawananakoa Social Security number was on the return, the IRS goofed big time.

It processed a refund check for $2,123,453 based on the amount of advance estimated tax payments that Kawananakoa or the estate had paid to the IRS.

"Because the Roberts' were the first to file a return using the primary Social Security number (of Abigail Kawananakoa), the return and the estimated payments by Kawananakoa were merged and used by the IRS Individual Document Retention System to post the return. The IDRS system automatically converted the return by giving Roberts credit for the estimated payments that were not previously claimed on their return," an IRS agent asserted in court records.

On March 11, the couple deposited the $2.1 million IRS refund check in Wachovia Bank accounts at a branch in Brookhaven, but withdrew some of the money over a two-week period.

The Roberts had use of the money only for about two weeks, and during this period they transferred $1 million into a Prudential Brokerage Account at Wachovia.

Suspicions over the big deposit caused Wachovia Bank's Corporate Fraud Investigation Unit to alert the IRS on March 24.

At the request of the IRS, the bank froze all the Roberts' accounts that same day.

The Roberts tried to withdraw $20,000 on March 25, but were told they couldn't.

Embarrassed tax officials acknowledged in court records that the $2.1 million refund was a major IRS blunder.

"On March 8, 2004, the IRS erroneously, mistakenly and without cause refunded" the $2.1 million, wrote Jennifer L. Best, a Justice Department tax division trial attorney, in the lawsuit the IRS filed against the couple to recover all the money.

Whether the IRS blames the $2 million blunder on human error, computer error or both remains to be seen.

An IRS spokesman would only say, "It does not appear this (refund) was generated as a result of a computer" error.

Court records show that an IRS seizure warrant was used to freeze $100,000 that the Roberts wired last month to their son, Brennen Roberts, 36, who lives in 'Ewa Beach.

The freeze on the son's account came just as he was about to buy a $59,000 Cadillac Escalade with the money his parents sent him. He also was planning to spend $9,000 more on five wheels for the luxury SUV, according to court records.

Woman, husband warned

Last year, the IRS had better luck in dealings with Abigail Roberts.

Two IRS employees in the Philadelphia area prevented her from filing a tax return using the Kawananakoa Social Security number.

The couple had gone to the Taxpayer Service walk-in office in Media to get their tax return prepared by an IRS employee for free.

An IRS worker recognized Abigail Roberts, knew her history, and called in IRS Agent Anne M. Henderson, a criminal investigator.

"Roberts and her husband were informed by me that if they continued to misuse the Kawananakoa identification and attempted to file another tax return utilizing the Social Security number, criminal charges could be lodged against both of them," Henderson stated in court records.

Prosecutors say Roberts has been telling the IRS that she's the real Hawaiian princess for more than a decade.

Prosecutors also allege that she has falsely identified herself as a beneficiary of Kamehameha Schools, formerly known as Bishop Estate.

"We're aware of the activities that are reported," Kamehameha spokesman Kekoa Paulsen told The Advertiser today. "But the issue is really between the IRS and this individual. We're not actively involved in any investigation, but we would cooperate with the IRS if asked."

Prosecutors contend Abigail Roberts "has no legal or familial connection to the Bishop Estate," according to a trial memorandum filed in federal court in 2001.

Got address changed

According to the trial memo, in 1993, the IRS gave Abigail Roberts the estate's taxpayer identification number after she filed an "Exempt Organization Business Income Tax Return" on behalf of the estate for the year 1990 reflecting no tax due on zero income.

She had signed the return, "Abigail Kekaulike Kindike Kawananakoa, owner."

Using the identification number she was "able to access information concerning the tax account" of the estate.

She also got the IRS to change the estate's address from Hawai'i to Chester, merely by requesting an address change.

"At the time it was normal IRS procedure to update address information based on tax forms without verification of previous information," Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank Costello wrote in the trial memorandum.

Between February 1994 and June 1996 she called and met in person with IRS officials in Media, Pa., and Philadelphia and requested "tax information, including transcripts of the tax accounts for the" estate, Costello noted.

"In response to these requests, she received numerous transcripts of tax accounts showing all tax deposits, payments, returns, taxes due, interest, credit, overpayment, and refunds," the prosecutor added.

"Even though representatives of the" estate "contacted the IRS on several occasions concerning" her "activities and requested that no further information be mailed to the defendant the account reflected" her "address during portions of 1993, 1994 and 1995," Costello explained.

Using information from the tax transcripts, she sought tax refunds that she claimed she hadn't received.

Even though previously issued refunds had been cashed by the estate, the IRS complied with her request and sent her more than $34,000 in 1994, payable to the estate.

A total of 11 IRS refund checks were sent to her from San Francisco "because her address was reflected in records of the IRS" as the estate's mailing address, the prosecutor said.

She returned the checks, which were payable to the estate, and asked the IRS to add her name to the payee line. The IRS complied.

As part of the earlier criminal case, prosecutors also alleged that Abigail Roberts made false statements by changing her name to "Abigail Kindike Kekaulike Kawananakoa Roberts" on her Social Security records in 1994 and by changing her parents identifications from Marie K. Beckley and Charles Kuheana to Lydia Kamak L. Kawananakoa and Clark G. Lee.

In 1995, she allegedly sought tax refunds of $386,015 by calling IRS tax examiners at a time when the estate's tax account "reflected a surplus of exactly this amount," the prosecutor told Judge Yohn.

No refunds were sent to her that year.

Advertiser staff writer Mike Gordon contributed to this report.