People Jailed for Owing Less Taxes Than Al Sharpton

Serial tax avoidance appears to be a hallmark of Al Sharpton’s operations. But there’s a warning here: Others have gone to prison for lesser amounts. The list includes rock legend Chuck Berry, Grammy winner Lauryn Hill, Ron Isley of the Isley Brothers, Survivor reality star Richard Hatch, hotel queen Leona Helmsely, and baseball’s Pete Rose (see below).

According to a New York Times' review of government records last fall, the MSNBC host and civil rights activist personally faces federal tax liens for more than $3 million in back taxes owed, and state tax liens of $777,657. So in total, Sharpton reportedly owes more than $3.7 million in back taxes. His other two for-profit businesses, Raw Talent and Revals Communications, (both now defunct) owe anywhere from $717,000 to more than $800,000, based on state and federal tax liens, reports from the Times and National Review indicate. Revals Communications also either didn’t file its tax returns, or underpaid its tax bills from 1999 to 2002.

Sharpton’s National Action Network also owed more than $813,000 in federal back taxes as of December of 2012, according to the nonprofit’s recent filings. At one point, the National Action Network's tax liability more than doubled last decade, jumping from $900,000 in 2003 to almost $1.9 milion in 2006. In 1993, Sharpton also had entered a guilty plea for the misdemeanor of failing to file his New York State income-tax return. Sharpton has also said the National Action Network had once given him a loan to pay for his daughters’ tuition, which is a violation of the law.

Sharpton has heatedly denied the tax evasion claims. “The (New York Times’) story is at best misleading and totally out of context,” Sharpton has said, adding, “Every time there's a Sean Bell or a Ferguson or a Trayvon Martin, we go through my taxes.”

Sharpton also said of the Times article: “I think it’s political…a lot of people don’t like the fact that President Obama is president. A lot of people don’t like the fact that Bill de Blasio won for mayor. And they certainly don’t like the fact that I’m still here.” A Times spokesperson has said:  “We stand by our story.”

Sharpton indicated he has accrued these tax bills, but he has said he is either disputing the amounts owed or has been paying off his personal federal income taxes in installments. He has said his nonprofit, the National Action Network, also has been paying off its tax liability. Individual IRS tax returns and records are not publicly available, they are subject to privacy laws, as are documentation of fights between taxpayers and the agency. However, state and federal tax liens against Mr. Sharpton and his businesses appear to remain active, which indicates the bills have not been completely paid off.

It’s an open secret in Washington, DC and among IRS revenue agents and auditors that the IRS's decentralized operation often results in disparate treatment of taxpayers. Even though there exists a large body of administrative law that says federal agencies must exercise their discretion in a consistent manner, tax lawyers have argued that does not necessarily apply to the IRS. Reason: In many cases, the IRS argues it is actually not exercising any discretion, but instead is hewing to the law and its directives.

However, reality is often different. For instance, in one 2010 IRS case, a manufacturer alleged the agency unfairly slapped his company with a federal excise tax that his competitors did not have to pay. But the company lost in the First Circuit Court of Appeals. Judge Juan R. Torruella wrote for the court. “The goal of treating similarly situated taxpayers consistently is general, not strict.”

That certainly has been the experience of others who have gone to prison for tax avoidance--a red flag for Sharpton and his operation:

Chuck Berry ($200,000)

In 1979, the rock legend served a five-month sentence at California’s Lompoc Prison Camp after he was found guilty of evading $200,000 in taxes. Berry was also ordered to do 1,000 hours of community service upon his release.

Pete Rose ($354,968)

In 1990, the former Cincinnati Red star and manager pleaded guilty to two felony charges of filing false federal tax returns. Rose spent five months in a Marion, Ill., federal prison; he was also fined $50,000. Rose had failed to report on his tax returns $354,968 in income from selling memorabilia and autographs, as well as personal appearances (his gambling resulted in a lifetime ban from baseball).

Richard Hatch ($1 million+)

In 2006, this “Survivor” reality star was convicted of tax evasion and tax fraud for failing to pay taxes on his $1 million-plus in “Survivor” winnings. Hatch was sentenced to 51 months in federal prison. He served just over three years before his release in 2009. Hatch was then ordered to refile his 2000 and 2001 tax returns, but did not do so. He was eventually ordered back to jail in 2011 to serve nine months, and left jail on supervised release. By that time, together with penalty and interest, Hatch owed close to $2 million in back taxes.

Leona Helmsley ($1.7 million)

In 1992 a federal judge sentenced Leona Helmsley to four years in prison (an initial 16-year sentence was reduced on appeal) after her tax evasion conviction. The billionaire real estate heiress was charged with avoiding $1.2 million in taxes after claiming $2.6 million in ineligible business expenses, including personal items. Helmsley also was ordered to do 750 hours of community service and was slapped with a $7.1 million fine. Helmsley served 21 months and was released in January 1994. She was quoted by her maid at trial as saying: “We don’t pay taxes, only little people pay taxes.”

Lauryn Hill ($1.8 million)

In 2012, Hill pleaded guilty to three counts of failure to file tax returns on $1.8 million in earnings between 2005 to 2007. Even though the founding member of the Fugees had argued she nearly paid off her taxes before sentencing, Hill was sentenced to three months in prison. Her sentencing also took into account unpaid state and federal taxes in 2008 and 2009, which brought the total owed to roughly $2.3 million. Hill served her three-month sentence in a federal prison in Danbury, Conn. in 2013. Upon release, she also spent three months in home confinement as part of her parole.

Ron Isley ($3.1 million)

In 2006, the lead singer of The Isley Brothers (“Who’s That Lady”) was found guilty of five counts of tax evasion and one count of willful failure to file tax returns for tax years 1997–2002, amounting to $3.1 million not reported. Isley was sentenced to three years and one month, served three years behind bars, and was released in April 2010. Isley’s attorney had pleaded for leniency because Isley had been attempting to pay down his IRS debt. Defense attorney Anthony Alexander also had argued that the 65-year-old singer should receive probation instead of prison time because of complications from a stroke and a bout with kidney cancer. But the judge on his case, U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson, declined to sentence the R&B singer to less time than called for under federal guidelines. "The term serial tax avoider has been used. I think that's appropriate," Pregerson said.