Make us your home page

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

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

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. 'Toxic' times: How repeal of Florida's tax on services reverberates, 30 years later

    State Roundup

    TALLAHASSEE — Long before Hurricane Irma attacked Florida, the state faced a troubled fiscal future that the storm will only make worse.

    Robertson says the tax debate is now “toxic.”
  2. Fewer Tampa Bay homeowners are underwater on their mortgages

    Real Estate

    The percentage of Tampa Bay homeowners underwater on their mortgages continues to drop. In the second quarter of this year, 10.2 percent of borrowers had negative equity compared to nearly 15 percent in the same period a year ago, CoreLogic reported Thursday. Nationally, 5.4 percent of all mortgaged homes were …

    The percentage of Tampa Bay homeowners underwater on their mortgages  continues to drop. [Times file photo]
  3. 'What Happened'? Clinton memoir sold 300,000 copies in first week


    Despite being met with decidedly mixed reviews, What Happened, Hillary Clinton's new memoir about the 2016 presidential campaign, sold a whopping 300,000 copies in its first week.

    The new memoir by former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton sold 300,000 copies in its first week.
  4. After Irma topples tree, home sale may be gone with the wind

    Real Estate

    ST. PETERSBURG — To house hunters searching online, the home for sale in St. Petersburg's Shore Acres neighborhood couldn't have looked more appealing — fully renovated and shaded by the leafy canopy of a magnificent ficus benjamini tree.

    Hurricane Irma's winds recently blew over a large ficus tree, left, in the yard of a home at 3601Alabama Ave NE, right, in Shore Acres which is owned by Brett Schroder who is trying to sell the house.
[SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]

  5. Unemployment claims double in Florida after Hurricane Irma


    The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits dropped by 23,000 last week to 259,000 as the economic impact of Hurricane Harvey began to fade.

    Homes destroyed by Hurricane Irma on Big Pine Key last week. Hurricane Irma continued to have an impact on the job market in Florida, where unemployment claims more than doubled from the previous week.
[The New York Times file photo]