Wesley Snipes Gets Jail for Tax Crimes

"Mo-money, mo-problems."

Film star Wesley Snipes offered that street-wise explanation of his plight Thursday as he apologized in court for "mistakes and errors" and appealed for mercy to a federal judge about to sentence him for income-tax crimes.

After listening to the actor, lawyers and witnesses, Senior U.S. District Judge William Terrell Hodges sentenced the hero of the Blade vampire trilogy, White Men Can't Jump and Money Train to three years in federal prison.

The announcement ended a daylong hearing in the high-profile tax case, during which lawyers for the action star offered prosecutors checks worth $5 million to pay part of his debt to the government

Orlando-born Snipes will have to pay millions more in back taxes, penalties and interest. The final bill could total $20 million.

Prosecutors called the courtroom check presentation a grandstanding move.

"It'll be a fraction of what he owes," said M. Scotland Morris, an assistant U.S. attorney who urged Hodges to give the actor the maximum penalty.

Snipes, 45, showed little expression as the judge did just what the prosecutors asked. The announcement stunned a courtroom full of the actor's friends and supporters, including TV jurist Joe Brown, who testified in favor of leniency Thursday.

A jury in Ocala found Snipes guilty Feb. 1 of three misdemeanor counts of willful failure to file federal tax returns. The panel acquitted him of more serious conspiracy and fraud charges, as well as three other misdemeanor counts of failure to file.

Hodges handed down harsher sentences to two men tried with Snipes: 10 years for Eddie Ray Kahn, 64, of Sorrento, and four years, six months for Douglas Rosile, 59, of Venice. Both were found of conspiracy to defraud the IRS and presenting a fraudulent tax claim.

Kahn founded American Rights Litigators and Guiding Light of God Ministries, which offered to help member legally escape taxes. Rosile prepared paperwork for clients, including Snipes.

Making his first statement in court since his trial began in January, Snipes never mentioned either man in his statement to the judge. Instead, the veteran of more than 50 films described himself as a victim of fame and money that attracted "jackals and wolves like flies are attracted to meat."

He never mentioned "taxes" or "crimes," an omission that prosecutors and the judge would later criticize.

"Newly acquired wealth does not endow one with immediate wisdom, nor does it make one immune to a good hustle," he said. "I am an idealistic, naive, passionate, truth-seeking, spiritually motivated artist, unschooled in the science of law and finance."

Prosecutors said Snipes deserved a three-year term because he obstructed and tried to intimidate revenue agents assigned to his case over the past eight years. They contend his tax debt for 1999 through 2004, the years covered by the indictment, will "conservatively" exceed $20 million.

Morris said Snipes has not filed a return or "paid a dime" for year tax years 2005 and 2006.

Defense lawyers championed the actor as kind, generous and community-minded, arguing for home detention, probation and community service — any thing but prison.

Hollywood pals Denzel Washington and Woody Harrelson were among celebrities who wrote letters urging Hodges to show mercy. TV judge Brown, who also wrote a letter, testified Thursday that Snipes was a role model to youth.

"He represents what John Wayne used to represent, what Sidney Poitier did," Brown said. "You have to have it in you to play those cowboys."

U.S. Attorney Robert O'Neill asked Brown if he paid their taxes, and if taxes were necessary in our society.

Defense attorney Daniel Meachum accused prosecutors of going after Snipes because he is a movie star and letting lesser tax-evaders go free.

"The government is not interested in collecting tax. They're big-game hunters," Meachum told the judge.

Hodges rejected the argument, saying that deterrence is a major consideration in deciding who gets prosecuted in tax cases.

"In some instances, that means those of celebrity stand greater risk of prosecution," he said. "But there's nothing unusual about it, nor is there anything unlawful about it. It's the way the system works."

He said Snipes' celebrity had no bearing on his sentence, however.

The penalty Hodges imposed "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, Kahn and Rosile, as inmates in prison," said Nathan J. Hochman, Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department's Tax Division, in a news release.

Snipes was not taken into custody Thursday. He most likely will serve his time at a federal prison near his home in New Jersey.

Earlier, during the hearing, defense lawyer Carmen Hernandez noted that by the time Snipes pays his debt to the government, it will have cost him much more than if he had paid his taxes on time.

Hodges quipped that Snipes had already paid dearly, a reference to his expensive lawyers. Snipes smiled and nodded his head as if in agreement.

Stephen Hudak can be reached at shudak@orlandosentinel.com or at 352-742-5930.

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