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Felony Charges Widen the Scope and Increase the Stakes of Florida’s Fraud Case

The newly released details of the alleged scheme could lead to real jail time and get the feds involved. And that's before the NCAA comes in.

Nine Florida football players stand accused of using stolen credit card information to buy items ranging from laptops to headphones to gummy worms. It’s a massive black eye for the Gators’ program, which has played all season without them. For the accused players, the case could potentially get much worse than the multiple felony charges each may face in the Sunshine State.

An attorney who has handled similar cases in Florida said the case may attract the interest of federal prosecutors working to stamp out credit card fraud and identity theft. “It would be something the feds would look at doing,” said Tim Jansen, a Tallahassee-based criminal defense attorney. “I’ve seen them look into this with less money and less scheme.” Jansen, a graduate of Florida’s law school whose highest profile case was the defense of former Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston against a sexual assault accusation, said the organization of the scheme—which involved the use of credit card numbers and addresses of people in seven states and repeated use of the same cardholder’s information by different players—is what might pique the interest of the feds. And if they get interested, a mandatory minimum sentence of two years in federal prison for aggravated identity theft comes into play.

University of Florida police filed sworn complaints Monday morning asking the State Attorney’s Office to charge nine players (receivers Antonio Callaway and Rick Wells; defensive linemen Jordan Smith, Keivonnis Davis and Richerd Desir-Jones; linebackers Ventrell Miller and James Houston IV, tailback Jordan Scarlett and offensive lineman Kadeem Telfort) with a variety of felonies relating to the use of stolen credit card information to make purchases at the UF bookstore and from off-campus companies. In most cases, money was placed on the players’ student debit card accounts using the credit card information. The amounts taken range from $550 to $3,570. The police asked that all nine be charged with a count each of Fraud-Swindle: Obtaining property under $20,000 and Fraud-Impersonation: Use or possession of another person’s identification without consent. Police asked that Smith be charged with four counts of Fraud-Impersonation, and he also faces a separate sworn complaint filed by the Gainesville Police Department. Police asked that Telfort, who is accused of using other people’s credit card info to buy items ranging from candy to an iPad, be charged with 30 felony counts.

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In other words, the operative question isn’t whether these players will return this season for the Gators. (They almost certainly won’t.) It’s whether they’ll go to prison. Receiver Antonio Callaway and tailback Jordan Scarlett—the two best players who were charged—probably will not return to the team under any circumstance. Smith and Telfort probably won’t, either. It remains to be seen whether any of the others can enter into any sort of first-time offender program that would get the felony charges reduced to misdemeanors. Only then would their return even be considered. The players haven’t practiced since word of the investigation leaked in late August. 

“We obviously took this matter very seriously as evidenced by Coach [Jim] McElwain’s decision to suspend the players immediately and indefinitely from all team activities,” Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin said in a statement. “We have respected the appropriate process from the beginning and will continue to do so.”

If these accusations are true, this is far more than a mistake on the part of the players. A pot possession charge or a public intoxication charge can be passed off as youthful indiscretion. This is stealing, pure and simple. It also isn’t an impulsive act like shoplifting. It is a planned scheme that requires some calories burned to pull off. And it has real victims. Sure, the cardholders can dispute the charges, but the credit card companies will pass along the costs to everyone who pays off their cards in the form of higher interest charges. 

The information released Monday only leads to more questions. If the accusations are true, how did the players come to obtain the information? That likely is what federal prosecutors would want to know if they got involved. Most likely, they’d offer to cut deals for anyone who flipped on the person who provided the info and threaten to jail anyone who didn’t. And if the amounts seem too small-time for the feds to bother with, consider the fact that this Cape Coral, Fla., man got sentenced to three years in prison for making 27 fraudulent charges totaling $8,070.45.

Meanwhile, Scarlett provided some extra work for Florida’s compliance department. In his case, the money was placed on his girlfriend’s UF debit card account. Scarlett and his girlfriend told police the money had come from an agent. According to the complaint, police contend the money came from the credit card account of a person who lives in Carlsbad, Calif. Florida compliance officials likely will have to look into the claim and report their findings to the NCAA.

But in this case, the NCAA is the least of Scarlett’s concerns. 

The Gators will continue to play without the suspended nine. Saturday, they’ll face Vanderbilt. Monday, McElwain announced that Luke Del Rio will make his first start this season at quarterback. It marked the second time in two months that McElwain has announced a starting quarterback on the day bad news about this case has dropped. For the Gators’ sake, they’d better hope they have no occasion to announce any more new starting quarterbacks.