Tax Law

Widow who owed $21.6M to feds gets 'effectively 5 seconds' of probation, as judge scolds government

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An elderly Palm Beach, Fla., widow with a high school education got “effectively five seconds” of probation from a federal judge in an offshore tax-evasion case after paying a $21.6 million penalty and back taxes.

Mary Estelle Curran, 79, had inherited $43 million in Swiss bank accounts from her husband, the largest amount yet at issue in an ongoing crackdown by the U.S. government against individuals who secreted assets at UBS AG to avoid paying income tax, reports Bloomberg. Curran had at least one account at the Zurich bank.

Curran, who is financially unsophisticated, according to her lawyer, Roy Black, contacted an attorney in 2009 about the accounts, and was advised to declare them under an Internal Revenue Service amnesty program. However, before she did so, the government got her name from UBS and pursued a criminal case against her. Meanwhile, as Curran admitted in her January guilty plea to two counts of tax evasion, she had failed to file reports of foreign bank accounts and filed false tax returns in 2006 and 2007.

Curran could have gotten as much as 37 months in prison. However, her counsel sought probation and the prosecution did not oppose it. At a Wednesday sentencing hearing in federal court in West Palm Beach, U.S. District Judge Kenneth Ryskamp gave her one year of probation and then immediately revoked it.

“This is really a tragic situation,” the judge said, urging Black to seek a presidential pardon on Curran’s behalf. “It seems to me the government should have used a little more discretion.”

Also representing Curran was attorney Nathan Hochman, who said the sentence was unique in his 25 years of prosecution and criminal defense practice.

“Judge Ryskamp’s sentencing is unprecedented in a number of respects: calling the government’s case against Mrs. Curran ‘tragic’ and ‘unfortunate,’ putting her on probation for effectively five seconds, urging Mrs. Curran to file a pardon application with the president, and telling the prosecutors they would be spiteful to oppose it,” he told the news agency.

The prosecution declined to comment.

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