Fact Check

Does This Meme Demonstrate Racial Bias in Tax-Evasion Prosecutions?

What do these four examples have in common? Nothing of significance, as far as we can tell.

Published March 15, 2019

 (Jerry Rainey via Shutterstock)
Image courtesy of Jerry Rainey via Shutterstock
A comparison of four cases demonstrates a racial bias in tax-evasion prosecutions.

One of the more unusual political memes we've come across presented four different cases of tax-related financial improprieties to suggest that tax-evasion prosecutions were somehow influenced by racial bias against non-blacks:

However, the "Tax Racism" meme offered examples — not all of which were actual cases of tax evasion — so widely spaced in time and so differing in circumstances as to be non-useful in making any point at all about either tax fraud or race.

Martha Stewart

Martha Stewart, the entrepreneur who rose to prominence as the author of books on cooking, entertaining, and decorating, was not charged with, or imprisoned for, non-payment of income taxes. Stewart was found guilty in March 2004 of felony charges of conspiracy, obstruction of an agency proceeding, and making false statements to federal investigators in a case related to a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) investigation into insider trading activity:

Washington, D.C., June 4, 2003 -- The Securities and Exchange Commission today filed securities fraud charges against Martha Stewart and her former stockbroker, Peter Bacanovic. The complaint, filed in federal court in Manhattan, alleges that Stewart committed illegal insider trading when she sold stock in a biopharmaceutical company, ImClone Systems, Inc., on Dec. 27, 2001, after receiving an unlawful tip from Bacanovic, at the time a broker with Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Incorporated. The Commission further alleges that Stewart and Bacanovic subsequently created an alibi for Stewart's ImClone sales and concealed important facts during SEC and criminal investigations into her trades. In a separate action, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York has obtained an indictment charging Stewart and Bacanovic criminally for their false statements concerning Stewart's ImClone trades.

Stewart was sentenced to 5 months in prison and also settled a civil suit with the SEC by paying a $195,000 fine (a penalty that reflected four times the amount of stock value loss she avoided by taking advantage of inside information, plus interest).

Stewart did engage in a dispute with the state of New York in 2002 over unpaid property taxes that she contended she didn't owe because she hardly spent any time in that state, and she was eventually ordered by a judge to pay $220,000 in back taxes plus penalties. But contrary to the false impression created by this meme, she was not prosecuted or jailed over that issue — the time she spent in prison was solely related to a later insider-trading case, not to tax evasion.

Al Capone

By the mid-1920s, notorious Chicago mobster Alphonse Gabriel Capone was reportedly taking in nearly $60 million annually ($878 million in 2018 dollars) from a variety of illegal activities, primarily Prohibition-era bootlegging. Capone was dubbed "Public Enemy No. 1" after the 1929 Saint Valentine's Day Massacre in which gunmen allegedly hired by him posed as police officers to murder seven members of a rival gang, leading to increased public pressure on the government to rein Capone in.

Federal authorities had difficulty gathering sufficient hard evidence to convict Capone on any substantial criminal charges, however, so they took what was then a novel tack: Even if they couldn't prove Capone was making his millions illegally, they could prove he wasn't paying income tax on his ill-gotten gains. Despite his obviously lavish lifestyle, Capone never filed a federal income tax return and claimed he had no taxable income, reportedly boasting at one point that, “They can't collect legal taxes from illegal money.” He was proved wrong.

IRS and Treasury agents gathered evidence that Capone had made millions of dollars in untaxed income, and the mobster was eventually indicted on 22 counts of federal income tax evasion. After conviction he was sentenced in 1931 to 11 years in prison, fined $50,000, and ordered to pay back taxes in the amount of $215,000. Capone was released from prison in 1939 with time off for good behavior and retired to Florida, where he died in 1947 at the relatively young age of 48.

In a literal sense Capone was indeed jailed for non-payment of income taxes, but the tax evasion charges were essentially a proxy for prosecuting the mobster over the multitude of vastly worse and violent crimes with which he was connected (and the immense profits he derived from those criminal activities). Capone was by no means an otherwise upright and law-abiding citizen who was thrown in prison simply because he didn't pay his income taxes.

What Is Tax Evasion?

At this point in our narrative we need to distinguish between different forms of tax evasion. At one end of the spectrum are those who haven't engaged in any fraudulent behavior but simply didn't or can't pay their taxes for any number of reasons — maybe they didn't plan or withhold prudently, they received poor financial advisement, they had legitimate confusion or dispute over what constituted taxable income, or they simply overspent and ended up in debt. Although non-payment of taxes is a crime, the IRS will not usually seek prosecution in these types of case and will instead work with offenders in order to facilitate payment of their back debts (rather than making repayment difficult or impossible by incarcerating them).

At the other end of the spectrum are those who actively engage in fraud in order to evade the full payment of taxes: They fail to disclose their full income, hide financial transactions, claim deductions to which they are not entitled, disguise monies earned as something other than income, or otherwise file falsified tax returns. The IRS will, at their discretion, seek prosecution in egregious cases of these forms of tax evasion.

Leona Helmsley

Leona Helmsley, derisively known by the nickname as the "Queen of Mean," was a billionaire who — along with her husband, real estate investor and broker Harry Helmsley — owned a vast portfolio of real estate and other assets, including a chain of hotels and the iconic Empire State Building.

Leona Helmsley, who once reportedly asserted that “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes,” fell into the latter class of tax evader, falsely manipulating her personal finances, business expenses, and dealings with third parties in order to avoid paying immense sums of taxes:

Some of [Helmsley's] luster was tarnished in 1986 when court documents and law enforcement officials said she had failed to pay sales taxes in New York on hundreds of thousands of dollars of jewelry she purchased at Van Cleef & Arpels, the exclusive Manhattan store. Two senior store officers were indicted on charges that they operated a scheme by which customers with out-of-state addresses could have their purchases recorded as being mailed to them, thus avoiding city and state taxes.

In 1987 a series of adverse articles in The New York Post about the Helmsleys, set off by one of their disgruntled employees, led to a broad investigation. The following year Harry and Leona Helmsley were indicted by federal and state authorities on charges that they had evaded more than $4 million in income taxes by fraudulently claiming as business expenses luxuries they purchased for Dunnellen Hall in Greenwich, Conn, a 28-room Jacobean mansion on 26 acres with a sweeping view of Long Island Sound that they bought in 1983.

In 235 counts in state and federal indictments brought by Robert Abrams, then the New York State attorney general, and Rudolph W. Giuliani, then the United States attorney and later mayor of New York, the Helmsleys were accused of draining their hotel and real estate empire to provide themselves with such extravagances at Dunnellen Hall as a $1 million marble dance floor above a swimming pool, a $45,000 silver clock, a $210,000 mahogany card table, a $130,000 stereo system, and $500,000 worth of jade art objects.

Nothing was too small or personal to be billed to their businesses, from Mrs. Helmsley’s bras to a white lace and pink satin dress and jacket and a white chiffon skirt — the dress and skirt were entered in the Park Lane Hotel records as uniforms for the staff. Mrs. Helmsley was also charged with defrauding Helmsley stockholders by receiving $83,333 a month in secret consulting fees.

She was convicted of 33 felony counts related to her evasion of $1.2 million in federal income taxes. She was sentenced to 16 years in prison (reduced to four years on appeal), fined $7.1 million for tax fraud, and ordered to pay some $1.7 million in back federal and state taxes. She began serving her sentence in 1992 and was released from federal prison in Connecticut in 1994 after having served less than half her sentence.

Al Sharpton

Where along the tax-evader spectrum between "legitimate dispute" and "willful tax fraud" civil rights activist Al Sharpton might fall is a difficult to determine. Claims were made in the press in 2014 that Sharpton owed some $4.5 million in unpaid taxes, but the accuracy of that number and how much of the monies owed might already have been repaid by Sharpton were unclear, and his tax-troubles narrative involved a muddied mixture of personal, business, and non-profit finances as well liabilities for federal taxes, state taxes, payroll taxes, and personal income taxes.

Much of the dispute over the "why" and "how much" of Sharpton's unpaid tax bill stemmed from the operations of the National Action Network, a not-for-profit, civil rights organization founded by Sharpton in 1991. Sharpton contended in a 2014 New York Times account that he incurred an unexpected tax liability because he was taxed personally for income he had given to the non-profit organization, and that he was up to date on repayment plans. Officials contested that the amount he was in arrears for in unpaid taxes had actually grown larger, though:

Today, Mr. Sharpton still faces personal federal tax liens of more than $3 million, and state tax liens of $777,657, according to records.

Mr. Sharpton said the federal liens resulted from a demand by the I.R.S. that he pay taxes on earnings from speaking engagements that he had turned over to National Action Network. He said he was up to date on payment plans for both the federal and state liens, so, he said, the outstanding balance was much lower than records showed.

But according to state officials, his balance on the state liens is actually $220,000 greater now than when they were first filed during the years 2008 through 2010. A spokesman for the State Department of Taxation and Finance said state law did not allow him to provide any further details.

Sharpton then contested that news account, asserting that it referenced "old taxes" and insisting again his tax liens had been paid down below the $4.5 million debt claimed in the New York Times report that stated Sharpton's unpaid tax debt had nonetheless grown larger, not smaller:

During a news conference at the headquarters of his National Action Network in Harlem, Mr. Sharpton sought to refute the assertion that there were $4.5 million in state and federal tax liens outstanding against him and the for-profit businesses he controls. He said that the liens had been paid down, although he declined to say by how much, and that he was “current on all taxes” he was obligated to pay under settlement agreements with tax authorities.

“We’re talking about old taxes,” he said, adding: “We’re not talking about anything new. So all of this, as if I’m not paying taxes while I’m doing whatever I’m doing, it reads all right, but it just is not true.”

The accuracy of Mr. Sharpton’s assertion that the amount he owes the federal government is much lower than the $3.6 million shown in records could not be verified. A spokesman for the Internal Revenue Service said federal law prohibited the agency from divulging any details about individual taxpayers.

As for the state tax liens, Mr. Sharpton’s assertion that he had paid them down conflicts with information provided by state officials. State authorities filed tax liens against Mr. Sharpton in 2008 and 2009, and again in 2010 against a for-profit business he controls, Revals Communications, all totaling $695,000. But a spokesman for the State Department of Taxation and Finance said the amount due had actually increased, to $916,000.

Regardless of the numbers, Sharpton wasn't put in prison because tax officials did not deem his case to be an exceptional one of scofflaw tax fraud or evasion that merited prosecution, instead working with him to facilitate his paying down the debt.


The conclusion here is a simple one: Cherry-picking four very disparate cases of financial wrongdoings spanning several decades, while ignoring the many other instances of tax evasion successfully prosecuted by the U.S. government, documents nothing about any purported racial bias in such prosecutions.


Buettner, Russ.   "Al Sharpton Criticizes New York Times Report on Unpaid Taxes."     The New York Times.   19 November 2014.

Buettner, Russ.   "As Sharpton Rose, So Did His Unpaid Taxes."     The New York Times.   18 November 2014.

Nemyaug, Enid.   "Leona Helmsley, Hotel Queen, Dies at 87."     The New York Times.   20 August 2007.

Erb, Kelly Phillips.   "Al Capone Sentenced to Prison for Tax Evasion on This Day in 1931."     Forbes.com.   17 October 2018.

Wood, Robert W.   "10 Notorious Tax Cheats: Queen of Mean Leona Helmsley Proved Little People Can Put You in Jail."     Forbes.com.   17 April 2015.

Wood, Robert W.   "Lessons From Rev. Al Sharpton's $4.5 Million Tax Bill."     Forbes.com.   19 November 2014.

Department of Justice -- Office of Public Affairs.   "Tax Crime Does Not Pay."     10 April 2018.

Johnson, Carrie.   "Stewart to Pay $195,000 in Settlement of Civil Suit."     The Washington Post.   8 August 2006.

Kratsas, Gabrielle.   "13 Infamous Tax Cheaters."     USA Today.   28 February 2014.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.