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Legislator gets probation for late tax returns

State Rep. Elvin Martinez was sentenced Thursday to three years'probation for filing late income tax returns, avoiding the federal prison term prosecutors had recommended.

"They've attempted for six and a half years to malign me and slander me," Martinez said afterward. "I hope this is the end of it."

Martinez has maintained that federal prosecutors brought the tax charges because he was acquitted of perjury charges in 1986. The government had accused Martinez of lying to a grand jury when he denied using drugs. That investigation stemmed from an earlier investigation into Hillsborough County corruption.

A jury convicted Martinez in December of intentionally filing late returns with the IRS in 1983, 1984 and 1985 as a way of postponing payment of $31,492 in taxes. Each misdemeanor offense carried a maximum penalty of up to a year in jail.

Federal prosecutors suggested that Martinez should be jailed at least two months because of his "arrogance and contempt for his government" and as an example to other tardy taxpayers.

At his trial, Martinez testified that he never meant to be late and that he paid all his back taxes, plus penalties and interest, since discovering the problem. He blamed accountants for the delay.

Assistant U.S. Attorney James Powers said Thursday that Martinez had a 20-year history of late filing, which showed a "systematic" violation of tax law.

But U.S. Magistrate Paul Game Jr. said the case was not as serious as the government suggested. Because Martinez filed for deadline extensions each year and was not trying to deny any tax liability or hide from the IRS, the offenses did not amount to a form of tax evasion, Game said.

Game told Martinez that he deserved probation "because of who you are and what you've done in the past."

Martinez, who has no other criminal record, has represented his West Tampa district in the state House of Representatives since 1966, except for four years.

He and others told Game that his law practice primarily benefits poor people, many of whom can't pay.

"He's fiercely dedicated to the working poor," said Ernie Fonseca, a union official. "They love and respect him and need him here."

As a condition of his probation, Martinez must continue filing timely tax returns and taxes for his law practice and perform 100 hours of community service work during each of the three years.

"I think the judge was extremely fair under the circumstances," Martinez said.

Martinez, who is up for re-election this year, said it was too early to tell what effect the sentence might have on his campaign.

"If all those who've ever had a problem with the IRS voted for me, I'd be satisfied," he said.

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