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Snipes gets 3 years in prison in tax case

OCALA — Actor Wesley Snipes received a maximum three-year federal prison sentence Thursday after being convicted on three misdemeanor charges of failing to file his tax returns.

The Blade trilogy star sat motionless in court as he listened to the judge, while his wife, Nakyung "Nikki" Park, whimpered loudly then began to cry.

Defense attorneys objected to Senior U.S. District Judge William Terrell Hodges' ruling and plan to appeal the sentence, which included a year of probation after the prison term.

The judge waived a fine against Snipes, although prosecutors had requested one. Snipes' attorneys said he must still pay millions of dollars in back taxes, interest and penalties.

Snipes, 45, has already started clearing his debt. He gave $5-million in checks to an Internal Revenue Service agent Thursday, who characterized the transaction as a "down payment" and only a "fraction" of what Snipes may owe. The government estimates his total debt could exceed $20-million.

Snipes remains free until the Bureau of Prisons designates a facility where he will serve his time. He has asked that it be near his New Jersey home.

The actor and his defense team left the federal courthouse in Ocala without speaking to fans or answering reporters' questions, which had become their custom during trial.

Inside the courtroom, Snipes spoke on his own behalf, asking for leniency.

"Let me begin by saying I am very sorry for my mistakes and errors," Snipes said. He called himself an idealist, a passionate truth seeker and someone who is sometimes naive.

"Even though I accept the jury's verdict, I never imagined my life would be imitating roles I played on the screen," he said.

A prosecutor pointed out that not once did Snipes acknowledge he had committed a crime or say the word "taxes."

"Which is a little troublesome," the federal judge noted.

Testifying to Snipes' good character, syndicated TV star Judge Joe Brown asked that the actor serve no prison time.

Brown said he met Snipes eight years ago. He described him as sometimes too trusting and "gullible." As a mentor to Snipes, Brown said, he has warned him that his celebrity makes his vulnerable to opportunists.

Brown also sent a detailed letter to the federal judge describing how Snipes had given back to inner-city youth and served as a role model.

Also sentenced Thursday were two co-defendants who stood trial with Snipes.

Eddie Ray Kahn, a Lake County resident whom Snipes hired as a tax consultant, received a maximum 10-year prison sentence for two felony convictions of conspiracy and filing a false claim with the Internal Revenue Service.

And Douglas P. Rosile, an unlicensed accountant from Venice, received a 4 1/2-year prison sentence for convictions on the same charges as Kahn.

Rosile prepared an amended tax return for Snipes that prosecutors used as evidence.

When the jury returned its verdict Feb. 1, it acquitted Snipes on the felony charges. It also found him not guilty on three other counts of failure to file his tax returns.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa revealed an indictment against Snipes in October 2006. Prosecutors accused him of conspiring with Kahn and Rosile to defraud the IRS of about $11.4-million in refunds Snipes sought on taxes he paid in 1996 and 1997.

The indictment also charged Snipes with failing to file tax returns from 1999 to 2004, while he earned nearly $38-million, the IRS said. Prosecutors said Thursday that Snipes has yet to pay taxes for 2005 and 2006. He recently asked for an extension in filing his 2007 tax returns too, prosecutors said.

Kahn, sentenced to three years in prison in the mid-1980s for failure to file his taxes, founded a consulting firm named American Rights Litigators. He convinced his clients, including Snipes, that the IRS had no legal authority to tax Americans on income they earned in the United States. Tax protesters base that argument on a section of the IRS code. Courts have rejected the theory.

Nathan Hochman, assistant attorney general for the Department of Justice's Tax Division, told the judge that the sentences he ordered would have a wide-reaching affect. The Justice Department announced this month the formation of the National Tax Defier Initiative. It's a more concentrated move to prosecute people who refuse to file their taxes, he said.

Snipes and his co-defendants became the first people to be sentenced since the initiative was announced.

Times staff writer Meg Laughlin contributed to this report. Kevin Graham can be reached at kgraham@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3433.

>>fast facts

What's next?

Actor Wesley Snipes was not taken into custody Thursday. He most likely will serve his time at a federal prison near his home in New Jersey. Snipes and the Internal Revenue Service will work in future civil proceedings to determine his full tax liability, plus interest and penalties.

Snipes gets 3 years in prison in tax case 04/24/08 [Last modified: Thursday, May 1, 2008 1:56pm]
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