Five Tax Shelter Promoters and Two Appraisers Indicted in Syndicated Conservation Easement Tax Scheme
Conspiracy Allegedly Involved Sale of Over $1.3 Billion in Fraudulent Tax Deductions
A federal grand jury sitting in Atlanta, Georgia, returned a superseding indictment on Feb. 24 charging seven individuals with conspiracy to defraud the United States and other crimes arising out of their promotion of fraudulent tax shelters involving syndicated conservation easements dating back nearly two decades. One of the defendants, Herbert Lewis, was previously charged in an indictment returned on June 9, 2021.
According to the superseding indictment, Jack Fisher, an Atlanta certified public accountant (CPA); James Sinnott; Yekaterina Lopuhina, aka “Kate Joy;” Lewis, an Atlanta-area CPA; Victor Smith, an Atlanta-area CPA; Clayton Weibel, a licensed appraiser; and Walter D. Roberts II, aka “Terry Roberts,” a licensed appraiser, engaged in a conspiracy to design, market and sell false and fraudulent charitable contribution tax deductions to high-income clients. Fisher and Sinnott allegedly caused partnerships to donate conservation easements over land owned by the partnerships. In conjunction with those donations, Fisher and Sinnott allegedly used two hand-picked appraisers, Weibel and Roberts, to generate fraudulent and inflated appraisals of the conservation easements that frequently valued the easements at amounts at least 10 times higher than the price that was actually paid for the partnership — often within months of the appraisals. According to the superseding indictment, the partnerships then claimed a charitable contribution tax deduction in the inflated amount of the conservation easement, resulting in a fraudulent tax deduction flowing to the clients who purchased units in the partnership.
Fisher, Sinnott, Joy, Lewis, Smith and other co-conspirators allegedly promoted, marketed and sold partnership units for $25,000 and guaranteed at least a 4-to-1 tax deduction ratio to their clients, which meant that four units with a total cost of $100,000 would yield a $400,000 tax deduction. The marketing materials allegedly stated, for example, that depending on their personal tax rate, such a $400,000 deduction could result in the client receiving $170,000 back within months of purchasing their units for $100,000. Fisher, Sinnott and Joy allegedly provided Roberts and Weibel with spreadsheets containing information purportedly used to value the conservation easements necessary to deliver the tax deduction ratio promised to their clients.
The superseding indictment charges that the syndicated conservation easement transactions were abusive tax shelters lacking in economic substance or a business purpose. Despite Fisher, Sinnott and Joy allegedly attempting to disguise the transactions as real estate deals, the indictment alleges that the transactions were simply the illegal sale of inflated tax deductions. Additionally, Fisher, Sinnott, Joy, Lewis and Smith allegedly helped clients claim charitable contribution tax deductions after the close of the tax year by accepting late sales, generating backdated documents and preparing, and causing the preparation of, false and fraudulent tax returns and false documents, among other items. In total, the defendants allegedly sold over $1.3 billion in false and fraudulent tax deductions through this scheme.
All defendants are charged with conspiring to defraud the United States, for which they face a maximum sentence of five years in prison. In addition, Fisher, Sinnott, Joy, Roberts and Weibel are charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, for which each faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison if convicted. Lewis and Smith are both charged with wire fraud, for which they each face a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison for each count. Fisher, Sinnott, Lewis, Smith, Roberts and Weibel are charged with aiding and assisting in the preparation of false returns related to the syndicated conservation easement tax shelters, for which they face a maximum sentence of three years in prison for each count. Fisher, Sinnott, Joy and Lewis are also charged with filing false personal tax returns, for which they each face a maximum sentence of three years in prison for each count. Finally, Fisher is charged with money laundering arising from his purchases of multiple luxury vehicles and domestic and foreign properties with the proceeds of unlawful activity. He faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison for each count. In addition to the statutory maximum periods of incarceration, each of the defendants also faces a period of supervised release, monetary penalties, restitution and forfeiture. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.
“The Tax Division is continuing to prioritize prosecution of fraudulent tax shelters, which are designed to enable taxpayers to pay far less than their fair share,” said Acting Deputy Assistant Attorney General Stuart M. Goldberg of the Justice Department’s Tax Division. “Those who contemplate promoting fraudulent tax shelters involving syndicated conservation easements – and the accountants, appraisers and tax preparers who create and execute strategies to assist them – should know that the Tax Division and IRS will unravel even the most elaborate schemes.”
“This superseding indictment demonstrates IRS Criminal Investigation’s commitment to investigate and prosecute illegal tax shelters,” said Chief Jim Lee of IRS Criminal Investigation (IRS-CI). “IRS-CI special agents are focused on ending abusive syndicated conservation easements that allow perpetrators of these schemes to enrich themselves while their wealthy clients skirt their tax obligations.”
Acting Deputy Assistant Attorney General Goldberg of the Tax Division, U.S. Attorney Kurt R. Erskine for the Northern District of Georgia and IRS Criminal Investigation Chief Lee made the announcement, and they thanked U.S. Attorney Dena J. King for the Western District of North Carolina for her office’s assistance in investigating the case.
IRS-CI and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service are investigating the case.
Tax Division Trial Attorneys Brittney Campbell, Parker Tobin, Casey Smith and William Guappone, along with Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Huber, Deputy Chief of the Complex Frauds Section, of the Northern District of Georgia, are prosecuting the case.
An indictment is merely an allegation, and all defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.