Wesley Snipes Fights Taxman To a Draw
Saturday, February 2, 2008
Wesley Snipes is known for playing independent, ornery characters -- Blade, the Detonator, the Marksman -- who outwit, outfight, out-blow-up their adversaries.
In his latest role, he appeared in a federal courtroom in Ocala, Fla., as Tax Evader.
Yesterday he may have triumphed again. Though he was found guilty on three misdemeanor charges, for not filing annual tax returns, he was found not guilty of more serious felony charges of tax fraud and conspiracy that could have put him behind bars for up to 16 years. (He could still go to prison for up to three years.)
Snipes was the pretty face in this story. The brains behind the operation -- Eddie Ray Kahn and Douglas P. Rosile -- were found guilty of tax fraud and conspiracy. They face up to 10 years in prison.
The Internal Revenue Service took Snipes to court because he did not file tax returns for six years. In fact, the IRS said, Snipes badgered the agency to repay him millions of dollars for taxes he once paid. He also clogged the IRS pipeline, according to the government's prosecution team, by sending reams of letters and documents, and he tried to "pay" his taxes using worthless documents called "bills of exchange."
The trial was held in Florida because Snipes owns a home there and carries a state-issued driver's license. He was born in Orlando. He had asked that the proceedings be moved because, he said, Ocala, a central Florida city of 50,000, is a bastion of racial prejudice.
Attorneys for the movie star fully conceded that Snipes owes the back taxes and can be ordered to pay it. But they contended that he had no criminal intent.
Defense attorney Robert Barnes agreed that Snipes's actions may have been outrageous, but not necessarily unlawful. "Disagreement with the IRS is not fraud of the IRS," Barnes told the Associated Press. "It was an attempt to engage the IRS, to go through the IRS procedures and processes and see who's right."
The prosecutors, of course, had a different view. "Nobody likes paying taxes, but paying taxes is the price we pay to live in a civilized society," Assistant U.S. Attorney M. Scotland Morris told the court on Tuesday. "And it's the law, and that's what this case is about. It's about three men who felt they were above the law."
Co-defendant Kahn founded American Rights Litigators, and Guiding Light of God Ministries, two groups that offered assistance to Americans who want to avoid paying taxes. He does not acknowledge the authority of the court and refused to appear there. Kahn's compatriot Rosile, a certified public accountant who lost licenses in Ohio and Florida, helped clients prepare their tax returns. For years, Kahn has advertised "tax advice" seminars in which he teaches people ways around paying taxes, telling them that the IRS is not a legitimate government agency. The Kahn men successfully persuaded up to 4,000 people not to pay taxes.
In surreal, rambling screeds addressed to the agency, Snipes asserted that he was a nonresident alien, that the IRS abuses citizens and that any attempt to bring him to justice would result in "increased collateral risk." Whatever that means.
It's been several years since Snipes, 45, was among Hollywood's box-office leaders. The "Blade" trilogy, which concluded in 2004, was his most recent big splash. But from the late 1980s through the mid-90s, he was a prolific, reliably bankable star, often in action-filled dramas and comedies ("Money Train," "New Jack City," "Passenger 57," "White Men Can't Jump") but also in offbeat character roles ("Jungle Fever," "To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar").
The trial had all kinds of twists -- assertions by Snipes that he paid his taxes using the "bills of exchange," drawn on a secret government-sponsored bank account, and objections by Kahn that his indictment was invalid because his name was spelled out in uppercase letters. Defense attorneys did not call any witnesses to the stand, saying it wasn't necessary.
The IRS has long been a target of disgruntlement. Presidential candidate Ron Paul wants to abolish the personal income tax. Mike Huckabee advocates doing away with the IRS. Through the decades, some Americans have refused to pay taxes for antiwar reasons, on religious grounds or because of various other aggrievements.
Last spring Edward and Elaine Brown of New Hampshire were found guilty of tax evasion. They refused to surrender to authorities, but were apprehended in October when deputy U.S. marshals pretended to be sympathizers. Also last year, a federal court shut down an anti-tax scheme by Robert L. Schulz, founder of We the People, who gave advice on how to prevent tax payments from being withheld from paychecks. "There has been a tremendous crackdown on tax protesters in the last four or five years," says Mark Potok, who tracks hate groups for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. "We cover the tax protest movement because it's part of the radical right. The ideology emanates from white supremacist groups."
Traditionally, he says, tax protest groups have been racist and/or anti-Semitic.
One of the best-known tax protesters was Federal Express pilot Vernice Kuglin, who was acquitted in 2003 of tax fraud by a jury that believed she was sincere in her misunderstanding of the process. She eventually settled with the IRS and agreed to pay half a million dollars in back taxes. A few weeks ago the IRS held an auction of some of Kuglin's possessions, including a 1994 Toyota Land Cruiser, in Memphis to try to raise some of the money.
The few tax protesters like Kuglin who have been successful in court, says Jon Almeras, editor of Tax Notes, a Falls Church-based tax analysis journal, "have won on the criminal arguments, usually by asserting that they sincerely believed or that they were misled into thinking they didn't have to pay taxes, thereby nullifying an element of the crime. What they haven't won on are the tax arguments."
Therefore, he adds, "there's little to be gained from frivolous tax arguments because the IRS doesn't like them and neither do the courts."
In other words, the IRS may not always get its man, but it does get its money.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.