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Tampa pastor, daughter sentenced in $11 million tax prep scheme

Tampa pastor and his daughter started a company that collected big fees because of fraudulent tax returns it prepared. [iStock.com]
Tampa pastor and his daughter started a company that collected big fees because of fraudulent tax returns it prepared. [iStock.com]
Published May 28, 2019

TAMPA — For years, Pastor Luckner Stimphil was a well-known figure in Tampa's Haitian-American community, sheltering new immigrants while helping them find jobs and permanent housing.

Stimphil also helped them and others prepare their tax returns — and for that he is going to prison.

On Friday, U.S. District Judge Steven D. Merryday sentenced Stimphil, pastor of Tampa's First Calvary Life Ministry, to four years and nine months in a tax fraud scheme that also involved his daughter, Elwolfine Dufort of Riverview. She previously had been sentenced to two years.

Prosecutors say Stimphil and Dufort started Top Popular Tax, a tax preparation business with offices in Tampa, Winter Haven and other locations, and operated it from 2011 through at least mid-2015. The company typically charged a fee based on the anticipated amount of refund plus a fee for administrative and processing charges.

According to the indictment against Stimphil, Top Popular's employees prepared returns with deductions to which the clients were not entitled — as much as $26,852. The fraudulent deductions helped increase the amount of refunds and hence boosted the amount that Top Popular collected.

Stimphil, 55, and Dufort, 31, "caused more than $11 million in losses to the IRS, essentially stealing the tax dollars paid by honest Americans,'' Special Agent in Charge Mary Hammond of the agency said in a statement. "The damage did not stop there. Their actions upended the lives of their clients, who now must sort out the mess caused by the false returns Stimphil and Dufort filed in their names.''

Stimphil and his daughter were ordered to pay $11 million in restitution; Stimphil must also pay a $10,000 fine and taxes he owes for 2012 and 2013.

In a sentencing memorandum, Stimphil's lawyer, Matthew Farmer, asked for a lesser sentence because of his client's work on behalf of his parishioners. Farmer said Stimphil and his family provided clothing, food, transportation and up to six months of housing for recent Haitian immigrants; arranged for legal services for immigration proceedings; and gave free meals to church-goers every Sunday and Tuesday. The church also sponsored 88 poor children in several small towns in Haiti, Farmer said.

In addition, Stimphil and his wife served as foster parents for children in Florida who were victims of physical and sexual abuse.

"Mr. Stimphil gave me a second chance at a new beginning when no one else would bother with me,'' one former foster child, Sterline Maxilien, said in a letter to Merryday.

In her own letter to the judge, Dufort said she accepted her two-year sentence but asked that her father be put on house arrest instead of being sent to prison.

"The fact is, it was never our intention to commit a crime,'' she wrote. "He honestly misunderstood a bunch of things and it just got way out of hand.''

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.