McLEAN, Va. - The courthouse files look like the Christmas list of a high-society fashion maven with a purse fetish: mink coats, jewelry, a Mercedes-Benz, and more than 100 handbags and wallets with names like Louis Vuitton.
Those are among the items the FBI found at the Washington home of Harriette Walters, who until recently was an $81,000-a-year city tax official.
Her salary was a pittance compared with the tens of millions of dollars prosecutors say she and at least five others stole.
Authorities say Walters was the ringleader of a scheme in which she and the others wrote themselves bogus property-tax refund checks.
The alleged scam went on for seven years until a bank employee last summer noticed irregularities in the checks. One $346,000 check was made out to a fictitious company named "Bilkemor LLC."
The case has been an embarrassment for the city's finance chief, Natwar Gandhi, who has been praised for helping to produce surpluses and strong bond ratings for Washington, a city that was headed toward insolvency in the 1990s after years of mismanagement.
Prosecutors in Washington and Maryland, who are handling the case jointly, estimate at least $20 million was stolen. An analysis by the Washington Post found about $44 million in suspicious refunds.
Prosecutors say Walters, 51, spent more than $1.4 million at one Neiman Marcus store since 2000, and deposited more than $8 million in her bank account during that time. The bedrooms, closets, kitchen and basement at her $800,000 brick home in a comfortable neighborhood in northwest Washington were packed with the handbags and other luxury items.
At the Bowie, Md., home of Walters' niece, the FBI found more than $10,000 in cash, about 100 designer bags and purses, a Versace china set, and a receipt from a Paris hotel.
Steven Tabackman, Walters' attorney, did not return calls seeking comment.
As manager of the city's Real Property Tax Administration Adjustments unit, Walters could authorize checks as long as some underlings also signed off.
But the names of the phony businesses receiving the refunds did not square with the tax identification numbers assigned to property lots in the city, and none of the refund requests included the required court order.
Gandhi has responded to the scandal by requiring that checks of more than $10,000 be approved by senior management. Ten people have been fired or reassigned.
The City Council has appointed William McLucas, a former enforcement chief at the Securities and Exchange Commission who investigated the scandals at Enron and WorldCom, to look into the scam.