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Lawyers face off at start of Snipes tax fraud case

OCALA, Florida (Reuters) - Defense attorneys clashed with the prosecution on Wednesday in Wesley Snipes’ tax fraud trial over whether the actor conspired with a longtime tax protester to defraud the government of millions of dollars.

Wesley Snipes (L) arrives with attorney Daniel Meachum (R) to stand trial for conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government and filing a false claim for a $7 million refund at the U.S. Federal Court in Ocala, Florida January 14, 2008. Defense attorneys clashed with the prosecution on Wednesday in Snipes' trial over whether the actor conspired with a longtime tax protester to defraud the government of millions of dollars. REUTERS/Scott Audette

The star of the “Blade” movie series has been charged with six counts of failing to file tax returns, two of fraudulently claiming tax refunds and one count of conspiracy to defraud the government. He faces up to 16 years in prison.

Also on trial are Eddie Ray Kahn, a known tax protester, and a former accountant, Douglas Rosile.

Prosecutors allege Snipes failed to file tax returns for the years 1999 to 2004 and sought refunds totaling more than $11 million for taxes paid in 1996 and 1997.

“The defendants Snipes, Kahn and Rosile willfully agreed to defraud the United States of revenue it was due,” prosecutor Robert O’Neill told the jury in his opening statement.

Snipes’ lawyer, Robert Bernhoft, said Snipes was waiting for the IRS to answer his inquiries about his need to file returns, and always stood “ready to pay and file.”

O’Neill told the jury that Snipes in 2000 joined Kahn’s group, American Rights Litigators, whose focus is to “thwart the process of the IRS.”

He called the group’s main argument against the requirement to pay taxes a “bizarre, gibberish kind of idea.”

O’Neill said the group prints what it calls “Bills of Exchange” which are “nonsense documents” as purported payment for IRS bills. Snipes, he said, sent Bills of Exchange totaling $14 million along with IRS payment vouchers to the government.

Kahn, who is charged with conspiracy and is representing himself, has declined to participate in the trial, but made a statement to the jury explaining that he believes the court has no jurisdiction in the case.

U.S. District Court in Ocala, Florida, 80 miles northwest of Orlando, is near the celebrity enclave of Isleworth, where prosecutors say Snipes lived at the time of the suspected fraud.

Rosile’s lawyer described his client as someone who merely took figures given to him and filled out forms.

Bernhoft said Snipes became involved with the group after losing faith in his previous financial and tax manager. Defense lawyer Daniel Meachum described Snipes as a person “totally dependent on the legal and financial services of others ... Wesley Snipes is the one who has been betrayed by many.”

Bernhoft said Snipes got no meaningful response from the IRS to his requests for interviews, conferences, appeals and audits, and to some letters to the IRS that Bernhoft said jurors may find to contain “very unusual beliefs, beliefs that you don’t hold.”

“He didn’t believe that was a secret conspiracy to trick or deceive the IRS,” Bernhoft said.

Neither prosecutors nor the defense addressed the question of whether Snipes paid any federal income taxes on what the government believes was $37.9 million in income during the years he allegedly failed to file returns.

Asked during a court break whether Snipes paid any taxes, O’Neill said, “I don’t know how you can pay income tax if you don’t file a return.”

A lawyer for Snipes previously told Reuters that Snipes paid withholding tax. In response, O’Neill said, “Ask him in what country.”

Editing by Jim Loney and Philip Barbara