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Federal prosecutors charge IRS workers with theft of government benefits

Twenty-four current and former Internal Revenue Service employees have been charged with stealing government benefits, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.

The IRS employees were indicted on charges that they illegally received more than $250,000 in benefits including unemployment insurance payments, food stamps, welfare, and housing vouchers, the U.S. attorney's office in Memphis said in a news release.

Prosecutors say 13 of the IRS employees face federal charges of lying about being unemployed while applying for or recertifying their government benefits. They each face up to five years in prison if convicted of making false statements to receive the benefits.

Eleven others face state charges of theft of property over $1,000, a felony that can carry a sentence of probation up to 12 years in prison if they are convicted.

"While these IRS employees were supposed to be serving the public, they were instead brazenly stealing from law-abiding American taxpayers," U.S. Attorney Edward Stanton said in a statement

Those charged range in ages from 28 to 64. They include residents of Memphis, Jackson, Tenn., and Southaven, Miss.

"The taxes that we pay are supposed to support our nation and assist individuals in need, not free-loaders who are gaming the system," said Amy Weirich, the district attorney for Shelby County.

Prosecutors scheduled, then canceled, a news conference to announce the indictments. U.S. attorney's office spokesman Rodney King said the cancellation was due to "unforeseen events," without elaborating.

King would not say whether the cancellation was related to the investigation into two letters sent to President Barack Obama and a Mississippi senator that indicated they contained poisonous ricin.

The FBI says the letters were postmarked Memphis.