TAMPA — Former Port Richey Mayor Richard Rober and his wife, Averill, pleaded guilty Thursday to conspiring to defraud the federal government by hiding more than $239,000 from the IRS.
In a hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas McCoun at the federal courthouse in Tampa, the Robers acknowledged that the facts outlined in a criminal complaint against them are true.
McCoun then accepted their pleas and released the couple on their own recognizance pending a pre-sentencing investigation. He did not set a sentencing date.
Federal authorities say the Robers diverted money from the water testing and treatment company they used to own, Gator Water and Wastewater Management Inc., into a separate account at SunTrust Bank. The couple underreported more than $239,000 of income from 2005 to 2007, with unpaid taxes exceeding $55,000.
The scheme first came to light in a 2009 lawsuit between the Robers and Florida Utility Group, the company that bought Gator Water. Florida Utility accused the Robers of siphoning company money into a personal fund and spending it on family finances, the couple's Hummer and repairs for their boat.
The IRS launched an investigation, which led to the federal charges that landed the couple in court Thursday.
McCoun ordered the Robers to surrender their passports and said they needed to seek permission from the court in order to leave Florida. The Robers face up to five years in prison, a $250,000 fine, and up to three years of supervised release following any possible prison time.
It remains up to a judge what their sentence will be, but as part of the plea agreement, prosecutors have recommended the Robers be given the minimum sentence on federal sentencing guidelines.
McCoun noted, however, that was only a recommendation and District Judge James Moody, who will preside over sentencing, could still impose any penalty.
An estimation of the lowest sentence the Robers could receive is "on the cusp" of prison time, said their Clearwater attorney, Douglas deVlaming. If the Robers were to receive prison time, he speculated it would be less than a year.
Rober, 52, resigned from the mayor's job in March, saying federal authorities told him criminal charges were imminent. Rober and his wife, 47, declined Thursday to comment on the case, but in the past they have pledged to take responsibility for their actions.
"This is just another step in the process for us," Rober told the Tampa Bay Times before the hearing.
He also said he's pained by not being mayor anymore.
"It's a hole in my heart. I really enjoyed working with the people there. I really did," he said.
McCoun said as part of the plea agreement with prosecutors, the Robers must pay restitution to the IRS, which could include unpaid taxes and interest. DeVlaming said they have already begun that process.
Three years ago, the Robers sued Florida Utility for not making the final payment in its purchase of Gator Water. Florida Utility had withheld the last installment upon discovering the Robers had funneled some money into a personal account, hidden from auditors and the IRS.
Florida Utility filed a countersuit, saying the Robers had provided a "fraudulent, deceptive and deficient" accounting of revenue that set them up for a major tax liability.
The lawsuit still is pending, but the Robers have already signed over to the IRS any funds that may be obtained in the lawsuit, which could reach around $140,000, deVlaming said after the hearing Thursday.
"They are doing everything they can to right the wrong they have done," he said.