Friday, April 25, 2008

Prosecutors seek hard sentence for Snipes in tax trial

By TRAVIS REED, Associated Press Writer

ORLANDO, Fla. - There is a perception, federal prosecutors fear, that Wesley Snipes emerged victorious from years of IRS investigation and a highly publicized tax trial.

And there is some truth to that. Snipes was acquitted in February of five of eight counts — including felony fraud and conspiracy charges that each carried up to five years in prison. But the action star was convicted of three lesser charges of willful failure to file a return.

Seeking to make an example of a "notorious" and "inveterate" offender, prosecutors are asking for the maximum three years in prison and a fine of at least $5 million when Snipes is sentenced Thursday in federal court in Ocala.

"This case cries out for the statutory maximum term of imprisonment, as well as a substantial fine, because of the seriousness of defendant Snipes' crimes and because of the singular opportunity this case presents to deter tax crimes nationwide," prosecutors wrote in an aggressive, 37-page memorandum to U.S. District Judge William Terrell Hodges.

Along with Snipes, the star of the "Blade" films and "White Men Can't Jump," co-defendants Douglas P. Rosile and Eddie Ray Kahn will be sentenced. Both were convicted of the felony fraud and conspiracy counts prosecutors couldn't hang on the action star.

Prosecutors are asking Hodges to consider not only Snipes' conviction, but also "relevant conduct" alleged in the government's broader indictment and investigation.

In this case, that Snipes sought $11 million in bogus tax returns, instructed all his employees to stop paying taxes, transferred millions to hidden foreign accounts and threatened government agents investigating him. It was unclear if the jury believed those parts of the government's case at trial. Either way, the law allows their consideration at sentencing, and under a lesser burden of proof than before the jury.

Snipes' defense filed its own lengthy sentencing memorandum Wednesday asking for probation, and not imprisonment. The filing included about three dozen letters attesting to Snipes' good character from family, friends, employees and even celebrities Woody Harrelson and Denzel Washington.

"He is contrite, promises that he will never again break the law, and respectfully asks the Court to consider not just the jury verdict but also all the good that he has done in his life," Snipes' attorneys wrote.

Snipes was convicted of failing to file returns for 1999, 2000 and 2001, a period in which the government alleged he made at least $13.8 million and would be liable for $2.7 million in taxes. That amount alone exceeds the monetary guidelines calling for a 36-month sentence.

But Snipes' attorneys say that tax table is "structurally flawed" when applied to misdemeanor cases, and he owed far less anyway. They says Snipes' back taxes are fewer than $400,000 for the years in question, a cutoff point for enhanced sentencing.

Snipes' attorneys also said the government's attempt make an example of him "approaches the type of vindictiveness prohibited by the due process clause."

"Wesley Snipes is not a dangerous man who needs to be imprisoned to protect the public," his attorneys wrote.

But prosecutors say Snipes is already being held by those in the fringe tax protest movement as proof that ordinary Americans don't have to pay income tax. The point of criminal tax prosecutions, which are relatively rare, is to promote deterrence, the filing notes.

Further, Snipes has been a ceaseless nuisance to several tax-collecting entities — not just the IRS, but the states of California and Florida and country of Canada, according to the sentencing motion. And investigators are still convinced he's hiding money — Snipes reported having only $8,824 in a checking account and $500 cash, the memo alleges, despite disclosed assets in excess of $25 million.

The government also alleges Snipes hasn't filed a tax return since 1998, though he was acquitted of failure to file in 2002, 2003 and 2004.

"The court is presented with a wealthy, famous and inveterate tax scofflaw," prosecutors wrote. "If ever a tax offender was deserving of being held accountable to the maximum extent for his criminal wrongdoing, Snipes is that defendant."

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