California plumber learns it's best just to pay your taxes

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 5, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Mark DeVries, a plumber from Bakersfield, Calif., defied the tax man. Bad idea.

DeVries is now prison-bound, sentenced to 27 months by a federal judge in Fresno, Calif. He's also on the hook for hefty penalties, newly imposed by a Washington-based court.

Devries, 56, is the latest case study in the perils of a seductive idea: The father of four, married to his high school sweetheart for more than 35 years, was lured from the financial straight and narrow by the same siren song that snared actor Wesley Snipes and thousands of others.

"Mr. DeVries (said) that, after studying the (tax) code, he learned that all withholding is voluntary," U.S. Tax Court Judge Diane Kroupa wrote in summing up the case.

The Washington-based tax court hears taxpayers' challenges to the Internal Revenue Service. Some challenges are well-founded. Some are not. Some become downright criminal.

"Some of these people really believe," Joe Kristan, a tax specialist and blogger based in Des Moines, Iowa, said in an interview Friday. "They'll try pretty much anything; they'll run through the whole list of these silly arguments."

On Thursday, Kroupa concluded that DeVries and his wife, Caroleen, owed a total of some $122,000 in unpaid back taxes and more than $80,000 in penalties for the years 1996 to 1998. Three days earlier, U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger had sentenced DeVries for his conviction on charges related to evading taxes from 1999 to 2001.

The criminal conviction and the tax court civil ruling stemmed from actions taken in different years. Both, however, resulted from DeVries' insistence on evading unwanted tax obligations.

"Even now, after his criminal conviction, Mr. DeVries has filed a return based on frivolous positions," Kroupa said in her 31-page ruling.

Frivolous positions include challenging the legality of the IRS. DeVries also evaded taxes through a web of false identification numbers and shaky trusts, a jury determined.

"Through word of mouth, Mr. DeVries found a 'guy out of Fresno' to form his trusts," Kroupa reported, quoting DeVries. "Mr. DeVries paid him 'a couple grand,' even though he was not an attorney, because 'everybody had trusts.' "

DeVries still has his supporters. Many wrote Wanger to describe an individual whom his attorney called "a family man, hardworking, kind and compassionate, true to his beliefs, religious and always willing to help others."

"Mr. DeVries' conduct related to the convictions in this case can best be described as aberrant behavior, for an individual who has otherwise led a law-abiding life," Fresno-based attorney Eric Fogderude wrote in a pre-sentencing memo.

DeVries, like Snipes and others, had embraced pitches affiliated with entities variously known as the American Rights Litigators and the Guiding Light of God Ministries.

The organizations peddled tax-avoidance schemes that included the assertion that the IRS lacks the authority to collect taxes. The 68-year-old founder, Eddie Ray Kahn, is serving time for fraud and related crimes.

A Kahn-affiliated attorney from Gainesville, Fla., named Milton H. Baxley II initially represented DeVries and then was sent to prison himself.

The defense was remarkably aggressive. When an IRS agent sought DeVries' financial records from banks, Baxley sent letters that called the summons illegal. The DeVries family tried billing the IRS investigator for $1 million, claiming "copyright infringement." DeVries sought to obtain the investigator's personnel file and launched an unsuccessful $50 million lawsuit against IRS officials.

Officials had to respond to each maneuver, similar to the tactics that other tax resisters employ. It adds up.

"The cost to the government and those of us who pay taxes was staggering," researcher and litigation consultant J.J. MacNab noted in an interview Friday.

Kahn at one point had more than 4,000 paying clients. MacNab said these included "a surprising number of dentists and chiropractors" as well as blue-collar workers and "larger fish" such as Snipes.

The one-time star of movies including "Blade" and "Rising Sun," Snipes earned more than $37 million from 1999 to 2004. Instead of tax returns, he filed what the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals called "treatises describing theories about why the IRS was powerless to collect income taxes from him."

Snipes is serving a three-year sentence for failing to file tax returns. He'll probably be released from prison in July 2013, several months before DeVries will.

The government "has done a very good job of shutting down key tax-denier promoters," MacNab said, "and the movement has had to adjust ... to focus on other techniques."

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