Richard Hatch, the first-season winner of the reality TV series "Survivor," has appealed his conviction on tax evasion charges to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Hatch was convicted in 2006 of ducking taxes on his $1 million prize, in addition to his income from co-hosting a radio show and rental properties he owned in Rhode Island. Hatch's attorney Michael Minns argued that the district court violated his client's rights by curtailing Hatch's explanation of why he believed the TV show producers had paid the taxes on his winnings.
He also argued that the court improperly limited Hatch's right to cross-examine witnesses, including his own accountant, and that the court improperly allowed the government to use what Hatch called unqualified experts while excluding some testimony from Hatch's own expert. Minns also contended that Hatch's sentence was unreasonably harsh. Hatch received a 51-month prison sentence.
Earlier this year, an appeals court upheld Hatch's conviction, ruling that the judge had wanted to avoid broad questioning about Hatch's allegations of cheating on "Survivor" while still allowing his attorney to ask about any possible tax deals.
The prospects for Hatch's appeal to the Supreme Court appear to be remote as the high court hears few of the appeals directed its way. "They don't take on very many," Minns said in an interview.
He noted that the jury had acquitted his client on seven of the original charges against him, but the judge did not allow him to make a full presentation on the other charges or to fully cross-examine the witnesses against his client.
"The first person that got hold of Richard Hatch was a big shot in a big firm, and this guy had never prepared an entertainment return in his life," said Minns.
Hatch's agent said the original tax preparer didn't know what he was doing and sent him to a lawyer who turned Hatch's business into an S corporation. Hatch then went to another accountant, a fan of "Survivor" and a family friend who claimed she could prepare the return, but Minns said that her main experience involved preparing tax returns for her father.
"The CPA didn't have a clue how to handle the return and she prepared it wrong," said Minns. "She hired a criminal defense attorney to defend her, and she ended up making a deal with the government for limited immunity. She refused to talk to me or to Hatch, and she only worked with the government."
Minns believes the accountant should have prepared the return as if it were for someone working for an off-shore business, given the length of time Hatch spent on the "Survivor" island of Pulau Tiga, and that she should have treated Hatch as an employee, and not an independent contractor, which could have reduced Hatch's prison sentence.
He disagreed with the statements the tax preparer made before the jury about S corporations and their responsibilities for filing returns, but said he was not allowed to challenge her assumptions. "She told Hatch to file an amended return before an original return was filed," said Minns. "She was made to look like an expert by the government. The chief witness against him was his CPA, who had to defend herself."
He said he was more successful in a similar case, U.S. vs. Moran, in which the judge ruled the same as in Hatch's case, but the Morans were later acquitted on appeal. "Hatch is actually in a better position," said Minns. "He won seven of the 10 counts." He said that he later met one of the jurors in the Hatch case on an airplane, who said that if he had been able to hear Minns' full presentation, he would have voted to acquit him.
However, Minns is uncertain of when and how the Supreme Court will deal with his appeal. "They do whatever they want," he said. "They don't have to answer to anybody. I can't give you any predictions."
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