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Housemate might testify in swindler's trial

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Friday, Aug. 26, 2011

An Upper St. Clair businesswoman scheduled to plead guilty on Tuesday to federal tax evasion and conspiracy charges could be a witness in the trial of her housemate, convicted swindler Michael Carlow, a legal expert said.

Elizabeth Jones, 51, is charged with conspiracy to defraud the government, two counts of filing false tax returns and one count of failing to file a tax return. U.S. District Judge David Cercone filed a notice on Thursday scheduling the plea hearing for Jones.

The notice doesn't specify the charges to which she will plead guilty. Calls made to her attorney, Assistant Federal Public Defender Jay Finkelstein, and to the U.S. Attorney's Office were not returned.

University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris said the government typically includes being a witness as part of a plea agreement.

"Usually, a condition of a plea is that the defendant will testify truthfully in future proceedings," he said.

Defendants sometimes plead guilty without an agreement and the government sometimes makes plea agreements that don't include that condition, Harris said. Neither situation would prevent the government from calling Jones as a witness, and since she'll have already pleaded guilty, she would have trouble invoking her Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination, he said.

"She would no longer have any claim that what she's going to say is going to get her into trouble," Harris said.

If Jones has a plea agreement that allows her to plead to only some of the charges, the likelihood that she will be a witness increases because that means the government offered her less potential prison time in return for something it wanted, Harris said.

Jones and Carlow, 60, allegedly set up or gained control of several companies so that Carlow could disguise his income and avoid paying more than $6.4 million he owes the Internal Revenue Service from a 1996 conviction on six counts of bank fraud and tax evasion connected to a $31 million check-kiting scheme.

A trial date hasn't been set for Carlow, who is charged with conspiracy, tax evasion and four counts of filing false tax returns. Carlow, who remains free on a $25,000 unsecured bond, could not be reached for comment.

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