Any of us tempted to cheat on our taxes should consider the example of the well-to-do physician and his lawyer wife who appeared in Manhattan federal court on Tuesday.
The couple will soon be departing their luxury Upper East Side apartment for his-and-hers federal prisons.
Neither Dr. Jeffrey Stein nor Marla Stein looked at all prepared for incarceration as they arrived on the 15th floor of the courthouse just before 2 p.m. on the day before Tax Day. They were there to plead guilty to evading more than $500,000 in taxes. The husband filed in excess of $125,000 in phony invoices using the names of disabled veterans, one of whom was dead.
Marla got there a few minutes before her husband, stepping off the elevator in a black pantsuit and pearls. Courtroom 15-B was still locked for the lunch hour, and the 52-year-old Northwestern grad stood by a window in the hallway with a fellow lawyer. She gazed down at an inmate basketball game on the roof exercise yard of the adjoining Metropolitan Correctional Center.
“See, they’re playing,” she said.
Jeffrey appeared in a dark plaid business suit, white button-down shirt, and blue tie. The bespectacled 58-year-old MIT grad stood at his wife’s side and said nothing at all as he peered down at the sort of burly ballers who may soon be his cellmates. He did not seem to take any particular notice that the inmates were at least tame enough to remedy a foul with a free throw.
The Steins were joined by their attorneys, Benjamin Brafman for the husband, Robert Katzberg for the wife. A clerk unlocked the courtroom door and they all entered along with the prosecutor. Assistant U.S. Attorney Stan Okula went up to the prosecution table carrying a thick law book and a manila folder marked “STEIN.”
The New York Times reported the Steins’ wedding at the pricey Le Cirque restaurant back in December 1995. The couple now joined their lawyers at a table reserved for defendants of all backgrounds. The wife reached into her purse and took out a bottle of water, in keeping with the ways of Manhattan women of a certain class.
The jury box was empty, as the Steins had decided that all they stood to gain by going to trial was a stiffer sentence. Brafman is widely regarded as one of the very best trial lawyers, but even he could not contest a case as strong as the one Okula and the IRS had assembled.
“All rise!” the clerk called out.
In strode U.S. District Court Judge Denise Cote.
“United States of America versus Jeffrey Stein and Marla Stein,” the clerk announced.
Cote looks mild enough, but she is considered bad luck personified for defendants who hope to avoid prison.
“Welcome, everyone,” she said without a hint of intentional irony. “Good afternoon.”
Cote noted that the purpose of the proceeding was for the Steins to change their initial plea.
“Not guilty to guilty,” the judge said.
Before the Steins could own up to lying extravagantly to the IRS, they had to raise their right hands and swear to tell the truth.
“I do,” both assured the court.
Jeffrey was admitting to allegations set forth in court papers that he completely invented expenses such as transcription that was never done and wages supposedly paid to nonexistent employees. He also had pumped up various tax cheat favorites, including “travel and auto expenses, deductible meals and entertainment.”
Marla was admitting to inflating expenses as well as inventing what court papers term “labor and advertising expenses purportedly incurred by her law practice but which were in truth and fact never incurred or paid.”
In February 2013, the IRS had notified the Steins that their tax returns for 2010 and 2011 had been “selected for audit.” The IRS indicated that it was particularly interested in the expenses that the couple had claimed.
The accountant who had submitted the returns agreed to represent the Steins at the audit. He asked for them to provide documentation to back up their expenses. That was when the Steins made their biggest mistake.
When the IRS catches you faking expenses, your wisest course of action is to utter three words:
“You got me!”
The Steins imagined that they could fool the tax folks.
“The defendants created and provided to the accountant various fabricated and fictitious documents and information as part of a corrupt effort to convince the IRS auditor that the expenses claimed…were legitimate,” the court papers say.
As a well-regarded vascular surgeon, Jeffrey Stein had done some work for the Veterans Administration and thereby had access to the agency’s databases. He used the names of four disabled veterans—two of them former patients—in creating bogus hospital invoices from nonexistent medical personnel such as a “vascular technologist” and an “ultrasound technologist.” The invoices totaled $125,525.
“One of the veterans whose name was placed on a bogus invoice…was not even alive,” the court papers report.
Marla Stein had altered genuine invoices from photographers and a videographer hired for family celebrations. The court papers note, “Among the invoices fraudulently created by Marla Stein and later provided to the accountant was one that falsely recited that a ‘day in the life’ video had been prepared for and paid for by Marla Stein in connection with the purported mediation of a law suit on behalf of a personal injury client.”
She also had joined her husband in completely fabricating some invoices, though at least she had not used the names of veterans. She instead had appropriated the names of two individuals with whom she had dealings. One was a person who had provided medical care to a family member. The other was the Steins’s babysitter/housekeeper. Neither had done anything for her law practice, as she claimed in the tax return.
The use of the housekeeper’s name was particularly unwise, as the Steins were paying her $75 a day, four days a week, for a range of domestic duties. And this led to the IRS hitting the Steins with an added violation that many of their friends likely commit with no fear of being charged.
“[The Steins] failed to pay to the IRS various employment taxes due and owing to the IRS,” court papers say. “The cash wages paid to [the] domestic employee also aids the domestic employee in avoiding detection by the IRS of the domestic employee’s fraudulent failure to report her cash wages.”
The Steins clearly underestimated the ability of the IRS in this digital age to find reported names and sums that do not match what is on record.
Together, the fake and altered invoices constituted real and incontestable evidence that convinced the Steins to enter guilty pleas on Tuesday. The judge first had to ensure that they were of sound mind and understood what they doing.
Cote asked Jeffrey if he had ever suffered from mental illness. He said he had not but allowed that he was seeing a therapist.
“What are you seeing a therapist for?” the judge inquired.
“For anxiety-related issues,” Jeffrey said.
“Is your mind clear today?” the judge asked. “Do you understand what’s happening in this proceeding?”
“Yes, it is,” he replied.
The judge posed the same question to Marla, who also said she had never suffered from mental illness.
“I’m seeing a psychiatrist now, Your Honor,” Marla added.
The judge did not ask her why, likely because it was obviously the prospect of going to prison. Marla assured the court that she also had a clear mind on this day and understood the nature of the proceeding.
“I find they are competent to enter a plea of guilty,” Cote declared.
Jeffrey pleaded guilty to both counts on the charge sheet, tax evasion and “corruptly endeavoring to obstruct and impede the due administration of the Internal Revenue law.”
“I knew what I was doing was wrong,” he said. “I am truly sorry.”
“Did you know you were violating the law?” the judge asked.
“Yes,” he said.
Marla was allowed to plead guilty only to the less serious obstructing count, perhaps because her fake deductions were smaller and she used no disabled veterans.
“I was aware this was wrong and I deeply regret having done so,” she said.
The more serious charge could have carried a maximum of five years, the lesser a maximum of three years.
But the written agreements that preceded the guilty pleas call for Jeffrey to get between 18 and 24 months and Marla to get between 12 and 18 months.
The judge set sentencing for 10 a.m. on Tuesday, July 28.
“Thank you,” the judge said of this week’s proceeding on the day before taxes are due. “Thank you all.”
Everybody rose as the judge departed. Brafman said the Steins would not be speaking to the press. He passed out a written statement saying they are “hopeful that the court at the time of sentence will recognize that they are fundamentally decent people whose poor judgment in this case does not define who they are.”
Brafman himself seems to view them this way. He surely would have fought to keep them out of prison if that had been at all possible.
“This breaks my heart,” he said.
The Steins departed the courthouse. They would be back in the luxury of their Upper East Side apartment on Tax Day, but sometime after July 28 the couple who got hitched at Le Cirque will almost certainly be in his-and-hers prisons.
And in that is a lesson for anybody who contrives to cheat the IRS, particularly those who answer an audit with what amounts to an insult.
Too bad the lesson does not also apply to corporations.