Snipes' lawyer portrays him as a victim at tax evasion trial
(Orlando Sentinel, The (FL) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) OCALA, Fla. _ Wesley Snipes' lawyer described the star as "the boy who made good" and a victim of anti-tax schemers during opening remarks Wednesday in the actor's tax-evasion trial.
"He has never, ever been a cheat," defense lawyer Daniel Meachum said of Snipes, who has Orlando roots. "He has never, ever been a tax protester."
Snipes, 45, star of "White Men Can't Jump," "Jungle Fever" and the sci-fi trilogy "Blade,' faces up to 16 years in federal prison if convicted of conspiring to defraud the Internal Revenue Service and other tax-related charges.
Interim U.S. Attorney Robert E. O'Neill outlined the government's case using computer-projected graphics that charted the actor's earnings and a time-line of his relationship with co-defendants Douglas Rosile, 59, and Eddie Ray Kahn, 64.
Rosile, an accountant who prepared a tax return for Snipes seeking a $7 million refund, was associated with American Rights Litigators, an anti-tax organization founded and led by Kahn from a second-floor office on Donnelly Street in downtown Mount Dora.
"Its focus was to thwart the processes of the IRS," O'Neill said.
O'Neill said the group _ and its later hybrid, the Guiding Light of God Ministries _ espoused a "jibberish kind of idea" that Americans are not required by law to pay taxes on wages and income earned on U.S. soil.
He warned jurors that they would be presented with hundreds of pages of documents collected by IRS investigators in their probe of Kahn's group and Snipes, who paid no federal taxes on $38 million he earned from movies and investments from 1999 through 2004.
Robert Bernhoft, one of six lawyers defending Snipes, disputed the prosecutors' claims during a 45-minute address to the all-white jury.
Bernhoft said Snipes had not intended to join an anti-tax movement, but instead paid Kahn's group for tax and investment advice because he was dissatisfied with Starr & Company, the New York firm that had handled those affairs for him.
Starr & Company counted former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw, actress Goldie Hawn and actor Sylvester Stallone among its clients, but invested poorly for Snipes, costing him $757,000 in 1998, Bernhoft said.
Brokaw, Hawn and Stallone, who later sued Starr & Company over investment losses, are named on a witness list for Snipes that also includes boxer Muhammad Ali, filmmaker Spike Lee and actor Woody Harrelson.
Unfortunately, according to the lawyer, Kahn's group also betrayed and exploited Snipes _ confusing him with legal opinions that he owed no federal taxes and also was due a hefty refund for past overpayments.
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Although prosecutors allege that Snipes dodged taxes by filing "frivolous correspondence," Bernhoft said the actor repeatedly sought answers from the IRS, seeking a meeting and an explanation of what he owed.
He even asked for an audit.
"Not too many people ask for an audit," Bernhoft said. "Welcome to the wacky world of the IRS."
He reminded jurors that, if acquitted of all charges, Snipes still would be required to pay taxes _ and penalties.
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David Wilson, lawyer for co-defendant Rosile, told jurors his client did not try to defraud the government when he prepared documents for Snipes that sought a $7 million refund.
Kahn, who has rejected court-provided counsel and called the proceedings a sham, spoke briefly to the panel, telling them he was not participating.
Rosile and Kahn could be sentenced to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Federal agents consider both men to be tax protesters. According to court records, Rosile was stripped of accounting licenses in Ohio in Florida and Kahn previously served a prison term for a tax-related crime in Texas.
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After the opening statements, jurors heard from the first witness for prosecutors, an IRS employee who used court, property and driver's license records to show that Snipes considered himself a resident of Windermere, where he bought a home for his grandmother.
The trial continues to lure an odd collection of spectators to the federal courthouse in Ocala.
Fans of the film star shout their support to him and snap photos with camera phones as he arrives and leaves each day.
On Wednesday, a Marion County tax-accounting firm also used the forum to stump for business.
"If people do their taxes, they won't end up here," said Judy Hotaling, owner of Liberty Tax Service, whose employees dressed in green gowns to resemble the Statue of Liberty and distributed T-shirts and foam crowns.
(c) 2008, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).
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