WASHINGTON - A federal court in Pensacola, Fla., has sentenced three of nine promoters of a fraudulent tax-and-debt-elimination scheme to prison terms for their roles in tax fraud, wire fraud and money laundering, the Justice Department and Internal Revenue Service (IRS) announced today. Four others were sentenced in July to prison terms ranging from 5 to 12 years. The remaining two will be sentenced in October.
The court sentenced Eugene Casternovia to 7 years in prison and sentenced Arthur Merino to 3 years and 4 months in prison. Mark Lyon, who cooperated with the government and testified at trial, was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
On March 31, 2010, a federal jury returned guilty verdicts against eight people, following a month-long trial in Pensacola involving the promotion of fraudulent schemes through Pinnacle Quest International, also known as PQI and Quest International. The ninth, Lyon, entered a guilty plea and testified against the other eight at trial.
According to the evidence presented during trial, PQI was an umbrella organization for numerous vendors of tax and credit card debt elimination scams. Some of the PQI vendors, such as Southern Oregon Resource Center for Education (SORCE), sold bogus theories and strategies for tax evasion. For fees starting at $10,000, SORCE assisted its customers in the creation of a series of sham business entities in the United States and Panama. Other tax-related PQI vendors denied the legitimacy of the income tax system on various theories and provided customers with a “reliance defense” that consisted of a paper trail of frivolous correspondence which a client could allegedly use as evidence of good faith if the client were prosecuted.
At trial, the government established that other PQI vendors sold fraudulent schemes for eliminating credit card debt, the most successful of which was called Financial Solutions. Financial Solutions charged its customers thousands of dollars for a series of letters to send to credit card companies disputing the lawfulness of the underlying debt. The product was wholly ineffective, and customers typically were sued by their creditors and often forced into bankruptcy.
According to the evidence, another PQI vendor, MYICIS, operated as a sophisticated, computerized “warehouse bank.” MYICIS was a single bank account in which customers pooled their money. MYICIS was promoted to PQI’s clients as a method to hide their assets from the IRS as a result of the pooled nature of the account. MYICIS had 3,000 clients and approximately $100 million in deposits over a three year period.
Evidence introduced at trial showed that PQI purported to sell only CDs and tickets to offshore conferences. However, PQI acted as a gateway to its fraudulent vendors. PQI clients seeking the tax evasion and debt elimination vendors could only access the product if they joined PQI first. The cost of membership ranged from $1,350 to $18,750, depending on the level of access. In May 2008, a federal district court issued a preliminary injunction against the promoters of Pinnacle Quest International.
“There are consequences for disobeying the laws of our nation. These defendants are now being held accountable for their criminal behavior,” said Victor S. O. Song, Chief, IRS Criminal Investigation. “They helped form a series of sham business entities and then promoted fraudulent debt elimination tactics intended for the sole purpose of concealing income from the IRS. Their tactics were fraudulent. There is no secret formula that can eliminate an individual’s tax obligation.”
Acting Assistant Attorney General John A. DiCicco of the Justice Department’s Tax Division thanked Trial Attorneys Michael Watling, Adam Hulbig, and Jonathan Marx, as well as paralegal Iris Wright, for their hard work in prosecuting the case. Mr. DiCicco also thanked the team of IRS Special Agents who investigated the case, particularly Stephen Walker and Wendy Kilpatrick, for their efforts.