Hillsborough political force Ralph Hughes hid cancer from family, son testifies

TAMPA — The books of Cast-Crete Inc. in Seffner were a mess. The IRS was owed millions. Tax returns hadn't even been filed.

Ralph Hughes, Cast-Crete's majority owner, had died and his son, Shea Hughes, 51, asked Cast-Crete president John D. Stanton III if he was as confused about the books as everyone else.

Hughes said Stanton smiled and chuckled before saying, "I can't figure it out and nobody else will figure it out either."

In the fourth day Thursday of Stanton's federal trial on charges he failed to file and pay his own and Cast-Crete's taxes, Hughes told jurors about his frustration trying to sort out the finances of Cast-Crete, once Florida's leading building-supply company.

Testimony is expected to continue today.

While Hughes spoke mostly about Stanton, perhaps the more fascinating aspect of his testimony was about his father, who died of a heart attack in 2008.

Ralph Hughes, 77 when he died, was a force in Hillsborough County politics, supporting candidates who shared his views on low taxes and small government.

Asked by a prosecutor if his father often discussed his health, Shea Hughes said, "He unfortunately kept that in the closet."

His father, unknown to him at the time, had been treated for colon-rectal cancer. The elder Hughes apparently told few people, excluding even members of his own family.

His son said Hughes would go to the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa for treatment days at a time unbeknownst to the family.

"He'd tell his wife he was going on a business trip and go to Moffitt for two or three days and then come back," Hughes said.

He did not say when his father was diagnosed or if it contributed to his death. Also unclear is if his father told some family members, but not others.

Similarly unclear is whether his father's poor health may have played any role in allowing Stanton greater sway at Cast-Crete.

Shea Hughes faced another surprise after his father's death: Cast-Crete was a financial morass despite its huge profits.

Hughes, who did not work for Cast-Crete before his father's death, said the first hint something was amiss was when bankers handling his father's $50 million estate couldn't get Cast-Crete tax returns from Stanton.

After several months, Hughes said, Stanton delivered a box of tax returns. None had been filed or even signed, he said.

Hughes said his father had previously told him that Stanton had "positioned" the company so Cast-Crete would not have to pay taxes for years. Then, Shea Hughes said, Stanton told him after his dad's death that the company's supposed losses would offset any tax liability.

But from 2001 to 2007, Cast-Crete earned $160 million. Hughes' estate and the IRS reached a settlement on tax debt of $140 million when interest and penalties were included.

Hughes now helps operate Cast-Crete. He said the company is expected to earn $2.5 million in profits in 2012, but every penny will go to the IRS.

Hughes said his father, despite his antitax reputation, had never quarrelled with the IRS.

Shea Hughes, who owns a major landscaping company, said his father had taught him an essential business lesson.

"He'd say don't ever, ever, ever, ever mess with the IRS."

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@tampabay.com

Hillsborough political force Ralph Hughes hid cancer from family, son testifies 12/13/12 [Last modified: Friday, December 14, 2012 12:00am]

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