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Florida's been a ground zero for big-name tax evasion

Wednesday is April 15, our federal tax deadline, when we all grit our teeth and lighten our wallets.

Either we've anted up way more than seems fair in this recession, or we see the clock tick down to midnight and the belated idea of grabbing a TurboTax program or swinging by H&R Block and asking for mercy is just kicking in.

Taxes. As if we have not heard enough about them this year, given the startlingly inadequate sum collected to fund what our federal government so willingly spent in recent years. Not to mention what a new crop of federal officials now wants to spend aggressively to extricate the United States from its economic doldrums.

Like many things financially apocalyptic lately, Florida's proved to be a ground zero on tax evasion issues.

That was reinforced Monday when a get-tough U.S. Justice Department proudly unveiled a document that amounts to a scorecard of its tax-enforcement efforts in fiscal 2008.

In one case, one year ago this month in an Ocala courtroom, actor Wesley Snipes received a maximum three-year federal prison sentence after being convicted on three misdemeanor charges of failing to file his tax returns. While the judge waived a fine against Snipes, he must pay millions of dollars in back taxes, interest and penalties.

The government estimates his total debt could exceed $20 million.

In another cited case, a Florida yacht company accountant — Steven Michael Rubinstein, 55, of Boca Raton — last week became the first U.S. citizen charged with filing a false tax return in a federal investigation into wealthy citizens who hid assets from tax collectors in the Swiss bank UBS. He's been released on $12 million bail.

That's just the latest UBS event in Florida's courts. In January, authorities here charged Raoul Weil — a senior executive with UBS — with conspiring to hide $20 billion in assets from the IRS using secret overseas accounts for thousands of customers. Weil's attorney says his client is innocent.

Another UBS banker, Bradley Birkenfeld, pleaded guilty last year in Fort Lauderdale to fraud conspiracy charges and has been cooperating with U.S. investigators.

Earlier, Birkenfeld allegedly agreed to help billionaire U.S. client Igor Olenicoff. The banker bought diamonds with secret Swiss funds and brought them into this country undeclared by jamming the loose diamonds into a tube of toothpaste.

To break the code of silence among the wealthy with overseas accounts, the IRS recently unveiled incentives for people to turn themselves in voluntarily over the next six months, pay what they owe and answer questions about who helped them set up the secret accounts.

Officials, for now, offer milder penalties and a reduced likelihood of criminal prosecution.

But a renewed crackdown comes as the Treasury and Congress try to find additional sources of revenue to help invigorate the economy.

Offshore tax evasion isn't new. But officials expect these efforts to be more productive because Switzerland and most other tax havens have pledged greater cooperation. Some Floridians are sure to be very nervous this spring.

Robert Trigaux will be filing his tax return shortly. He can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Florida's been a ground zero for big-name tax evasion 04/13/09 [Last modified: Friday, April 17, 2009 1:56pm]
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