Film star gets prison in high-profile tax case
He fought vampires in the "Blade" trilogy and fended off terrorists in "Passenger 57," but actor Wesley Snipes was finally vanquished this spring by a more mundane foe: tax law.
Snipes received the maximum penalty of three years in prison on April 24 for failing to file income tax returns. Federal prosecutors, who had recommended the sentence, hoped the fate of the big-screen celebrity would serve as a warning to other tax resisters that no one is above the law. "Snipes' long prison sentence should send a loud and crystal clear message to all tax defiers that if they engage in similar tax defier conduct, they face joining him and his co-defendants [Eddie Ray] Kahn and [Douglas] Rosile in prison," said Nathan Hochman, assistant attorney general of the justice department's tax division, in a news release.
Snipes had sought tax advice from Kahn, whose organization, American Rights Litigators (later renamed Guiding Light of God Ministries), told hundreds of clients they could escape tax payments. Rosile prepared tax returns for American Rights Litigators.
Earlier, Snipes — who commanded $343,750 a week for "Blade III" — had contended in court that he was merely following the guidance of Kahn's outfit when he tried to avoid paying taxes. The argument was only partly successful. A jury acquitted Snipes in February of the most serious charges, but convicted him of three misdemeanor counts of willfully failing to file tax returns from 1999 through 2001, when he earned more than $18 million from his films.
During the sentencing hearing, Snipes' attorneys presented prosecutors with checks totaling $5 million, but one assistant U.S. attorney said that was only a fraction of what he owes. Including taxes, penalties and interest, Snipes could be faced with a bill for $20 million.
The government minced no words in its sentencing recommendation: "In the defendant Wesley Snipes, the court is presented with a wealthy, famous and inveterate tax scofflaw," the document states. "If ever a tax offender was deserving of being held accountable to the maximum extent for his criminal wrongdoing, Snipes is that defendant."
The defense complained that prosecutors were taking a tough stance on Snipes because of his star status while ignoring run-of-the-mill tax-resisters. But U.S. District Court Judge William Terrell Hodges was unsympathetic.
Snipes' sentencing came two weeks after the government announced plans to go after tax shirkers more aggressively. "When there are crimes, they will be prosecuted to the fullest," Hochman said in early April.