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Ex-West aide pleads innocent to check fraud allegations

Sun., Aug. 8, 2010, midnight

A former state legislative candidate convicted in a federal fraud case four years ago is back in trouble, this time related to a proposed condo development in North Idaho and an alleged Internet-based scam similar to his previous crime.

Travis J. “TJ” Sneed, 27, also is accused in Spokane County Superior Court of using a pilfered bank account number to cash nearly $3,000 in checks under the name of a New Jersey loan company.

The six felonies he pleaded innocent to Tuesday, coupled with an indictment in U.S. District Court in Coeur d’Alene charging him with a form of racketeering and 22 counts of wire fraud, are the latest in the legal saga of a convicted con man who once worked as a legislative aide to Jim West. Sneed served time in federal prison for fraud and sued the Spokane County Jail alleging sexual abuse by a cellmate.

An Idaho grand jury indicted Sneed on July 20, along with Samuel Thomas Geren Jones. Neither man is in custody.

Along with the condo scheme, the wire fraud charges allege a scam that mirrors the case that sent Sneed to federal prison: swindling Internet shoppers by taking money for electronic equipment they never receive.

The charges were filed two days after Spokane police responded to a domestic violence report between the men and arrested Sneed outside 700 W. Seventh Ave., alleging he’d broken Jones’ arm, according to police records.

Prosecutors haven’t filed charges in that incident, but they have charged Sneed for an alleged check fraud scheme that victimized Legal Assistance Funding, a company in Little Falls, N.J., that grants loans to clients with pending lawsuits “in which they are expected to prevail or receive a settlement,” according to an affidavit filed in Superior Court on July 15.

Sneed declined to comment on the charges but wrote in an e-mail that he has “about 18 more suits” he’s prepared to file. Sneed also declined to discuss a recent settlement in a lawsuit filed against Spokane County, former sheriff Mark Sterk and co-defendants.

A U.S. District Court judge in Spokane dismissed the lawsuit on March 23 after Sneed and Heather Yakely, attorney for the county, said they’d resolved the claim. Yakely did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Sneed filed the lawsuit in June 2008, alleging he’d been raped by a cellmate at the Spokane County Jail on June 25, 2005. Jail deputies refused to answer his calls for help during the attack and ridiculed him afterward, according to the lawsuit.

Jail deputies determined Sneed was “looking for attention” and told him he could only file a grievance “if he promised not to write about his sexual assault,” the lawsuit alleged.

No charges were filed against the alleged assailant, who jail officials acknowledged was a convicted sex offender jailed on child molestation and burglary charges, according to a response to the lawsuit.

Sneed was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison on wire fraud charges in July 2005. His conviction came after federal investigators alleged he swindled more than $125,000 from Internet customers.

Sneed’s July 2004 indictment in U.S. District Court in Spokane came during his unsuccessful campaign as a Republican candidate for the state House from Spokane’s 3rd District. Sneed was operating websites that offered electronic equipment, but customers said they never received their merchandise and never got their money back.

Then 21 years old, Sneed had worked as a legislative assistant to then-state Sen. Jim West, who later was elected Spokane mayor, according to previously published reports.

Sneed left federal prison in June 2006, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

About a year later, Sneed and Jones persuaded a woman, identified in court documents only as D.F., to take a loan out on a home and adjoining lots on the Spokane River, valued at $750,000, federal prosecutors allege.

Jones and Sneed were living with the victim at the home and said the money was to fund a high-end condominium development; instead they stole the money, according to a grand jury indictment.

The men formed Blackwell Development Group LLC and had the woman send nearly $590,000 to a Pennsylvania attorney, according to the indictment.

The indictment accuses the men of transferring the money “to give the appearance that this was a legitimate business transaction when in truth and fact this was nothing more than a means to have complete control over D.F.’s loan proceeds.”

Prosecutors say Sneed and Jones conned the woman into believing Sneed was a land developer when “Sneed was not a successful businessman or land developer and the defendants were going to use the majority of the proceeds to promote other business ventures and for daily living expense.”

The men signed a contract detailing the proposal in October 2007; the woman obtained the loan in December 2007. Prosecutors say Sneed and Jones swindled the woman from July 2007 to May 2010.

At the same time, the men operated an Internet-based company, E-Trade Imports, out of a suite at 7860 N. Government Way in Dalton Gardens.

Nine counts of wire fraud included in the July 20 indictment allege the men contracted to sell thousands of laptops and computer monitors that they didn’t own to at least four companies. The contracts were worth more than $200,000.

Neither Sneed nor Jones has appeared in court on the federal charges. Sneed’s trial on the Spokane County identity theft charges regarding the New Jersey loan company is set to begin Oct. 25.

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