It began with a tip from a jealous lover.
Incensed at finding him holding hands with another woman at his favorite bar, Joseph Tawil's girlfriend decided to take revenge.
The next day, she phoned the Internal Revenue Service anonymously, reporting that Tawil, a professional tax advisor, was romantically involved with a female IRS employee and had paid the woman $7,000 to fix cases.
So began a six-year federal probe that culminated Monday with the conviction of Tawil, 52, of Dana Point; his brother, Ramzi, 49, of Yorba Linda and veteran IRS revenue officer Valerie Crawford, 41, of Van Nuys.
A Los Angeles federal court jury found the three defendants guilty of conspiracy to obstruct the IRS. Crawford was also convicted on two corruption charges.
The Tawils, operators of Advance Accounting Service of Brea, specialize in representing taxpayers in arrears to the IRS.
Crawford, employed at the IRS office in Santa Ana, was responsible for negotiating payments from delinquent taxpayers. If she found a taxpayer unable to pay the full amount, she could accept a compromise offer for less, or she could wipe out the entire debt if there was no hope of collecting any money.
Prosecutors charged during the monthlong trial that the Tawils collected more than $90,000 from five clients, promising to use the money in compromise settlements negotiated with the IRS.
But the funds never reached the government's coffers. In each case, Crawford falsified IRS records to show that the debts were uncollectable, Assistant U.S. Attys. Alicia Villareal and James Aquilina said.
In one instance, the prosecutors charged, Crawford created bogus letters from banks showing that the taxpayer was buried in debt. According to trial testimony, however, the taxpayer had just inherited nearly $130,000 and had given the Tawils $40,000 to be used in a compromise settlement purportedly reached with Crawford.
The jury also heard segments of secretly recorded audiotapes in which the Tawils indicated to an undercover agent that they had an IRS contact who could be bribed. Joseph Tawil's lawyer dismissed the remarks, describing his client as a braggart given to making up stories to impress clients.
In one muffled tape recording, Ramzi Tawil identified the contact by a name that sounded like Valerie and said she worked at the IRS' Santa Ana office. However, the government was unable to produce any evidence that Crawford was paid off by the Tawils.
Alone among the defendants, Crawford took the witness stand. She denied fixing cases or receiving bribes. She said her relationship with the Tawils was strictly professional, though she admitted once meeting Joseph Tawil for a drink after work.
Crawford also testified that she closed the five taxpayer cases after analyzing documents in the files and representations by the Tawils. She said many other IRS employees had access to those files, suggesting that someone else might have planted the bogus documents.
In his closing argument, Aquilina dismissed her account as far-fetched and unbelievable.
Crawford faces up to 15 years in prison. The Tawils face five-year terms.
Defense attorneys said they are considering appeals.