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IRS Says Nothing Certain but Death of Tax Protesting

October 08, 1986|PETER BAKER | Times Staff Writer

Our Constitution is in actual operation; everything appears to promise that it will last; but in this world nothing is certain but death and taxes.

--Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin has been quoted, misquoted and paraphrased thousands of times since he wrote about the inevitability of death and taxes in a letter to one M. Leroy in 1789.

But nearly 200 years later, thousands of Americans across the country steadfastly refuse to believe the part about taxes--or at least income taxes.

To them, the income tax isn't "certain"; rather it's tyrannical, unconstitutional, voluntary or simply immoral. These are the tax protesters, people who claim a special affinity for Ben Franklin and his fellow Colonial rebels as they wage what they call the "Second American Revolution." Income tax protest is nothing new; resistance has ranged from grumbling about filing forms each April to outright refusal to pay or file.

Nor is the movement gaining ground, government officials contend.

With the latest overhaul of the tax system about to be signed into law, combined with a recent slew of criminal convictions in California, government experts say the tax "revolution" is losing its appeal.

The tax rebel population has declined dramatically since its peak in 1984, when 11,516 people who have avoided payment of taxes were identified by IRS officials in California; there are about 4,500 today.

In addition, more than 100 California protesters have been convicted on criminal charges so far this year, according to government agencies.

And in Orange County, once a center for tax protest groups, tax agents claim they have broken the back of organized tax resistance.

Robert Pledger, chief of criminal investigations for the IRS district that covers Orange, Riverside, San Diego and Imperial counties, said that when the movement began to gain ground 10 years ago, most judges were lenient with protesters, treating them as "misdirected, semi-innocent people" duped into believing the claims of a group out to sell its books and literature.

"However," he said, "in the last few years, it's really gone the opposite way, and the courts are basically tired of all these arguments."

A tax resister convicted in the 1970s would probably have received a sentence of no more than 90 days in jail, Pledger notes; today, the average sentence is 27 months.

Although some tax protesters have won isolated rulings, none has held up on appeal, experts say. (Some resisters have been acquitted on the basis of "good faith"--that is, juries ruled that they were guilty but had acted out of a sincere belief in their philosophy.)

The confrontation came to a head in June, 1982, when the IRS successfully prosecuted one of the movement's generals, Armen Condo, the flamboyant founder and leader of the Garden Grove-based Your Heritage Protection Assn., at one time the largest tax protest group in the nation. Condo's conviction on 41 counts of tax and mail fraud led to an eight-year term in an Arizona federal prison and $92,500 in criminal fines, and it also gave government agencies their first major victory in the war against tax resisters in California.

"He was the most glib person you've ever heard. This guy was great, " recalls Fred C. Fischle, district manager of the California Franchise Tax Board office in Santa Ana, smiling with the sort of grudging respect that sheriffs must have shown for Butch Cassidy.

Unlike the bandits of the Old West, however, Condo and his fellow protesters fought their battles with books, literature, videotaped courses on "common law" and blank tax forms. Tactics used by these protesters often are not very complicated; they simply refuse to pay the income tax and wait for their day in court, convinced that they could win just by presenting their cases.

After Condo was convicted, the IRS brought nearly 600 association members to civil court and quickly prosecuted another 30 on criminal charges. The government then seized the group's headquarters, which led to a confrontation with Condo's successor, Pat Creech, who illegally reopened the offices for business and was sent to jail for that action earlier this year.

Today, the YHPA, which at its peak claimed 27,000 members nationwide, is barred by court order from promoting tax resistance under the association name.

And on Monday, federal prosecutors claimed another major victory with the sentencing of Dennis D. Riness, 42, of Seal Beach, one of the former directors of Tustin-based TEA, an Assn. of Twentieth Century Patriots, which once claimed 3,000 to 4,000 members, most of them from Orange County.

Riness was sentenced in federal court in Los Angeles to 13 months in prison, fined $5,000 and required to devote 1,000 hours in community service after pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy to defraud the government and one count of aiding and assisting in the preparation of false income-tax returns.

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