You have to hand it to Gregory Bridges, the Woodbridge tax accountant who was convicted last week for providing African American clients with "black tax credits" on their federal income tax returns. It takes nerve to mess with the Internal Revenue Service like that.
Bridges told a U.S. District Court jury in Alexandria that he got the idea after reading an Essence magazine article about reparations for slavery, which included instructions for claiming the black tax credit.
I looked up the article, which was published in April 1993.
"Since de facto racial discrimination continues to function as a hidden black tax, it ought to be deductible," wrote L.G. Sherrod, a New York economics consultant. "We can empower ourselves and `collect' the delinquent tax rebate, now estimated by The People's Institute for Economics (PIE), a New York based economics research group, to be $43,209 per household. So when income tax time rolls around, on line 59 of form 1040, which asks you to list `other payments,' simply enter $43,209 in `Black taxes' and compute accordingly."
As a concept, reparations for blacks has been around ever since America reneged on its promise of 40 acres and a mule for freed slaves. And now, with reparations being made to Japanese, Jews, Native Americans and other oppressed peoples, several African American groups have stepped up their efforts to help black people get paid, too.
Bridges, 35, apparently couldn't wait.
When clients came to him to get their taxes done, he gave them the black tax pitch: It was a legitimate tax credit, he said, which African Americans could claim as reparations for slavery and other oppressive treatment suffered by them.
He then sliced the PIE-per-household estimates into individual servings, with men getting a $9,146 tax credit and women getting $8,138. In exchange for the creative calculations, he would get a cut of the refund.
His conviction on 22 counts of filing false tax returns coincided, oddly enough, with a Black Reparations Conference that was also held in Washington last week. His case became Exhibit A on how not to go about seeking redress. But some of the alternatives sounded just as risky.
"Where he [Bridges] made his mistake was filing the taxes in the first place," said Robert L. Brock, a lawyer and president of the Self-Determination Committee, a Washington-based reparations advocacy group. "We don't believe black people should be filing taxes at all."
Brock said he favors a "black tax rebellion" based on a view that the laws of the United States do not necessarily apply to descendants of slaves.
"The descendants of Africans who were kidnapped and forced here are, 400 years later, still descendants of a kidnapped people," Brock said. "We are still Africans in America. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution made citizens out of slaves but did not offer slaves the choice of citizenship. Therefore, there can be no prosecution because this is an inappropriate venue for those of us who disclaim U.S. law."
Brock said he is representing several clients who have refused to pay taxes based on their status as descendants of slaves. If they win, more power to them. If not, penalties and interest could be substantial.
Dorothy Benton Lewis, head of a group called Black Reparations Now, wants the United Nations to make the United States honor its original agreement to provide 40 acres and a mule -- plus interest, which would amount to several trillion dollars.
"The demand for justice must be based on whether or not it is due, not some defeatist notion as to whether or not it is obtainable," she said.
By all accounts, Bridges, a former postal worker turned tax accountant and preacher, felt reparations were both due and obtainable.
From 1992 through 1996, he prepared more than 100 tax returns a year. In one case, Bridges persuaded a client who had $7,044 in legitimate tax withholdings to take the additional $9,146 in black tax credits.
That would have given the client a tax refund of $14,409 -- of which Bridges expected to get 30 percent.
When the IRS saw what Bridges had done, the agency "pounced on him with both feet," as one federal prosecutor put it. Bridges's office was raided, and his computers were seized. During audits of his clients, investigators discovered that he had routinely inflated deductions for medical expenses, gifts and mortgage interest payments -- and had been getting away with it for years.
But that wasn't enough. He wanted more. So he started using a black reparations scheme to get it. A jury of four men and eight women deliberated 4 1/2 hours before finding him guilty.
Maybe if Bridges had been able to attend a reparations conference and boned up not so much on tax law but spiritual principles, things might have turned out different.
"We must guard against the individualistic, `all I want is my money' mentality," said Nia Shabazz, a public relations consultant. "Remember our forefathers and foremothers, who got us here by enduring whippings, rapes and torture. Don't let our quest for money cheapen their legacy. You could end up getting the money and losing your soul. And before you know it, you and your money will be gone."
Bridges is scheduled to be sentenced in August. He could be gone for a long time.