Maryland's second-highest tax official was charged criminally yesterday with cheating on his state returns to avoid paying more than $22,000 in taxes.
In documents filed in Anne Arundel Circuit Court, the state prosecutor charged Chief Deputy Comptroller J. Basil Wisner, 58, with evading income and sales taxes.
Mr. Wisner, who remained on the job yesterday, said the misdemeanor charges were the result of "honest mistakes" on tax filings from a Carroll County bowling alley of which he is president and part owner.
He said he has agreed to repay most of the money as part of a deal with prosecutors that resembles a plea bargain. As a result, he said, he does not expect to receive jail time for the charges, which carry sentences of up to 10 years.
State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli and Mr. Wisner's attorney, state Sen. F. Vernon Boozer, a Baltimore County Republican, declined to comment on the nature of any agreement.
Marvin Bond, a spokesman for Mr. Wisner's boss, Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein, said he found the timing of the prosecutor's charges "awfully funny."
"It is very odd they would do something like this in advance of an election," he said.
Mr. Goldstein, 81, is seeking a 10th term as the state's chief tax collector in the Nov. 8 election.
Mr. Montanarelli strongly denied that politics played any part in the timing of the charges.
"To hold off until after the election would be a political decision, and I'm not making that kind of decision," he said. "We've finished our investigation, we finished our discussion with the defense counsel, and I'm not holding off."
He said he could not have charged Mr. Wisner earlier because he hadn't completed the 15-month probe.
Mr. Goldstein could not be reached yesterday, so it could not be learned whether the charges will cost Mr. Wisner his job.
In a telephone interview, Mr. Wisner said he has cooperated with authorities and has agreed to repay $14,000 in back sales taxes and to amend the income tax returns of his Hampstead Bowling Center.
"I didn't intentionally try to defraud the state of Maryland of any money. Absolutely not," he said.
Mr. Wisner said the bowling alley's customers are partly to blame for his failure to pay the $14,000 in taxes from food and beverage sales there from November 1985 through September 1993.
For example, he said, customers tried to take advantage of a law that exempted food purchases under $1 from sales taxes. A bowler would order four 75-cent sodas, and the sales clerk would ring up a $3 sale plus tax. The buyer then would insist on paying for the 75-cent sodas one at a time to avoid taxes.
"You're dealing with the taxpaying public," Mr. Wisner said. "They will do anything they can to avoid taxes."
The legislature closed that loophole in the sales tax law during the budget crisis two years ago.
Concerning two income tax charges, Mr. Wisner said his accountants made mistakes in preparing returns from the bowling alley that cost the state $8,300 in income taxes from 1989 through 1991.
Mr. Wisner said he will file amended returns for 1992 and 1993
showing that he overpaid taxes for those years by roughly the same amount. "This will offset the prior losses, so the bottom line is that it's a wash," he said.
The investigation into Mr. Wisner began about a year ago after a Carroll County official said the deputy comptroller was running the bowling alley without a valid trader's license.
That complaint prompted Mr. Montanarelli's office to review Mr. Wisner's annual payments of state sales taxes, unemployment insurance and other corporate taxes for the bowling alley.
A lengthy audit of Mr. Wisner's tax returns and business records uncovered the discrepancies that led to the charges.
Mr. Bond said the comptroller's office routinely examines the tax returns of top employees but that it failed to detect the problems found by the prosecutor.
"All of our returns are examined, but this kind of information wouldn't be on the state return," Mr. Bond said.
Mr. Montanarelli said there was no evidence of wrongdoing by Mr. Wisner in his official capacity.