By Kristen M. Daum
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
WELLINGTON — Wellington Vice Mayor John Greene failed to file federal income tax returns for at least two years and possibly three, according to court documents from his divorce — a problem that a tax expert and the county’s top watchdog called questionable at best.
Failing to file tax returns can lead to severe financial penalties or, in the extreme, a criminal investigation. And because Greene is an elected official, there is a standard of professional conduct to be considered; he should play by the same rules as the people he represents, said Palm Beach County’s new inspector general.
The Palm Beach Post was unable to find out why Greene didn’t file returns for 2011, 2012 and possibly 2013 and whether he owed taxes. Greene had successfully argued to a circuit court judge that the financial portion of his divorce filings should be sealed because he is a public official. He testified his political enemies would use the information “to attack and defame him” and that they’d already ridiculed him on social media.
Neither Greene nor his ex-wife nor their attorneys would comment for this story.
Under Florida’s open records law, the basic substance of divorce records is presumed to be open to the public.
The Palm Beach Post and other media in past years have argued against sealing the documents of public officials to ensure that the public and the press can keep an eye on their conduct. Former County Commissioner Tony Masilotti’s divorce case partly precipitated his downfall in 2007 when The Post found clues to secret land deals in the financial portion of the documents. Masilotti pleaded guilty to corruption charges and was sentenced to five years in federal prison.
Greene acknowledged under oath in the court records that “he generally was responsible for the accumulation and delivery of records to the accountant during that period” when he failed to file tax returns. When the marriage was dissolved this spring, he agreed to bear responsibility for any taxes owed when returns weren’t filed, “including any penalties, interest, fines associated with the late filings.” He agreed to absolve his ex-wife, Dana Greene, from any IRS enforcement actions related to their delinquent taxes and/or returns.
Not filing tax returns “can be a very serious problem” depending on an individual’s situation, said Scott Michel, an adjunct professor of tax law at the University of Miami and a practicing tax attorney in Washington, D.C.
The most benign violation occurs when a person pays the taxes that are owed — such as those withheld from paychecks — but doesn’t file annual returns, he said.
If someone doesn’t pay taxes at all and, worse, if there is a pattern of conduct or a “willful intent” by the person who failed to file, the IRS could launch a criminal investigation, Michel said.
“That can be a crime, punishable by prosecution – fine, imprisonment — in an egregious case,” Michel said, while adding “it’s rare to see it turn into a criminal case.”
It’s unknown whether Greene paid taxes and simply didn’t file, or whether he did neither.
In any case, “there are general obligations of public officials to pay their taxes,” said John Carey, Palm Beach County’s inspector general, who is tasked with weeding out fraud and misconduct in local government.
Greene and his attorney, Anthony Barbuto, declined last week to answer questions from a Palm Beach Post reporter about the information contained in the divorce records — some of which was subsequently blacked out this month after The Post started asking questions.
Dana Greene also declined to comment, and her attorney, John Boykin, was out of the country and unable to comment.
The Greenes’ divorce was finalized April 9. According to court records, the 2011, 2012 and 2013 returns hadn’t been filed.
The Greenes were supposed to “produce the necessary tax documents” to an accountant by April 10 so the returns could be filed. There’s nothing in the court record indicating whether Greene complied.
The Greenes’ tax returns for 2013 would have been due to the IRS on April 15, unless they filed for an extension.
It is unknown whether the IRS is investigating John Greene or whether he’s faced any criminal or financial penalties. Taxpayer privacy laws prevent the IRS from discussing individual cases or even providing general information on a hypothetical basis, said Michael Dobzinski, a Florida spokesman for the Internal Revenue Service.
No further information about John Greene’s tax history is available in the court file, because Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Rosemarie Scher granted a request from Greene last summer — without prior notice to the media and with objections from Dana Greene — to seal financial records in the divorce.
Greene testified that “the exposure of these detailed records and use of these records by third parties could vastly hurt his ability to earn a living,” according to court records.
Greene — through his company, Bari Limerick Corp. — has worked as an independent contractor in charge of fundraising for the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Foundation since January 2013.
During the first six months of that year, the foundation paid Greene $30,750 for his work, according to the foundation’s most recent tax return to the IRS.
Prior to 2013, Greene was vice president of business development for Navarro Security Group in Fort Lauderdale, according to financial disclosure statements he was required to file as a public official for 2011 and 2012. As of Wednesday, the county supervisor of elections had still not received Greene’s disclosure form for 2013, which was due July 1.
According to court records in the divorce case, Greene made an estimated $70,800 in 2012.
Greene was elected to the Wellington Village Council in March 2012 after a messy election that spawned lawsuits when initial results misidentified the winners. Within his first year in office, Greene was targeted in three separate ethics complaints, all of which were dismissed.
As a public official, Greene receives an annual compensation of $9,600 and his elected duties include voting on annual budgets and setting property tax rates and assessments for Wellington residents. Last week, Greene was part of a 5-0 vote to increase the annual assessment for residents in the Acme Improvement District by 15 percent.
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