On February 1, Wesley Snipes was acquitted of felony conspiracy and tax fraud after a two week federal trial in Ocala, Florida. Snipes was found guilty of three misdemeanor counts of willfully failing to file a tax return. FBLA caught up with Snipes’ lead trial attorney Robert Bernhoft, the Milwaukee criminal defense attorney who’s moving on up to L.A.
FBLA: So you’re a Milwaukee lawyer who got a big victory for a celebrity client and now you’re opening an office in Malibu. Do you surf, or do you just really hate Milwaukee winters?
Bernhoft: I really just hate Milwaukee winters (it’s subzero there right now, and I’m relaxing at the Fairmont Miramar Bungalows…life could be worse). Laird Hamilton’s daughter has promised to teach me how to surf, though.
FBLA: You called Ocala, Florida, the venue where Wesley was tried, a “hotbed of Klan activity” in pre-trial motions. Do men still ride around with white sheets over their heads there, or was that just a product of a lawyer’s imagination?
Bernhoft There’s a lot of so-called “White Power” events there, put on by National Vanguard and StormFront, and Ocala does happen to be the North American headquarters of the KKK. And according to the Anti-Defamation League, Ocala is the per-capita capital of race-hatred incidents and events.
FBLA: David Cay Johnston, the Pulitzer Prize-winning tax reporter for the New York Times, had a meltdown when he got into your face at the press conference you had to discuss the jury verdicts. What was going through your mind when Johnston was running off at the mouth?
Bernhoft: “He’s off his meds.”
FBLA: The defense rested its case without calling any witnesses for Wesley. Is that because the government had not met its burden of proof on the felony conspiracy and fraud counts, or is it because nobody in Hollywood wanted to travel to Ocala and testify for Wesley?
Bernhoft: I’m sure that Ocala is not a destination of choice for most Hollywood celebrities other than John Travolta, but the fact is, a lot of Wesley’s friends and colleagues were ready, willing, and able to testify for him there. But when you’ve got the government beat without calling a single witness, you don’t waste the jury’s time with a Hollywood-style intermission.
FBLA: For two weeks before the verdict Wesley’s press rep at Sitrick and Co. (Ross Johnson) passed out your statement that Wesley would walk on the felony counts. He did indeed walk on the felony counts. Was it dumb luck, did Sitrick rig the jury, or are you a brilliant lawyer?
Bernhoft: I’m a brilliant lawyer.
FBLA: It was reported that spectators were crying during defense closing arguments. What did you say during the argument that would cause someone to bawl at a tax trial?
Bernhoft: We talked about how the Liberty Bell might have been cracked in Philadelphia, but could still be heard in Ocala. Some people still care about those old-fashioned rights — like being able to ask your government questions without being rewarded with a federal criminal indictment. And they should…it’s important stuff, particularly in this new American age of domestic security at any price.
FBLA: Besides facing a civil tax trial where the government is going to want Wesley to pay $30 million in back taxes and penalties, Wesley has lawsuits going with New Line Cinema and United Talent Agency. Does Wesley just like to fight with people, or is this all a big misunderstanding?
Bernhoft: Throughout his career, Wesley has stood up for himself and others against an entrenched power structure, and he’s been targeted for that. These attacks have been going on for some time, like the “forcible DNA extraction arrest warrant” issued from the New York Family Court at the instigation of prosecuting attorneys from LaPorte County, Indiana. Some of this stuff is absolutely surreal, even in a surreal world, and you have to step back and ask yourself, “What’s going on here?”
Wesley was vindicated in that matter, of course, but not without fighting against these powerful government entities in the federal courts for several years. As a wise person once said: “You only have the rights you’re willing to fight to defend.” Wesley’s had to fight to protect and defend his. (By the way, even the government’s latest tax numbers are between 10-12 million).
FBLA: You’ve done a lot of big cases where tax protesters have been acquitted. Is it a good idea not to file a tax return?
Bernhoft No, it’s not a good idea not to file a tax return, because the IRS doesn’t like that, and they’ll come hunting for you, both civilly and criminally. American tax policy is no longer a legal question, it’s a political one, and thoughtful Americans who don’t like the current Tax Police State regime should go political, and quickly, if they wish to create change.
FBLA: If Wesley Snipes and Willie Nelson opened an accounting firm, who would get the best celebrity clients?
Bernhoft: No disrespect to the legendary Willie Nelson, but hands down Wesley would attract the most interesting celebrity clients. Wesley’s a fascinating man, cultured and engaging, and he’s a magnet for creative, interesting, eclectic personalities.
FBLA: When you go to trial on a big case, do you have any rituals?
Bernhoft: Each individual trial team member has their own unique rituals, usually involving prayer to particular deities. Rumors of animal sacrifice, however, are greatly exaggerated.
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