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Tax cheats' sentences treat rich gently

| Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2005

If you want to see the face of anger and indignation, question a judge's ruling. For someone who has yet to stand before a judge in a courtroom, I've nevertheless found myself on the receiving end of judicial wrath several of times.

How, exactly• Well, it usually starts when I write a column admonishing one of these elected officials on how they ruled in a particular case. Judges, like CEOs and other all-powerful beings, are famously thin-skinned because they're wholly unaccustomed to criticism.

Think about it: Private citizens stand awestruck and humbled in their presence, and lawyers don't want to taint their careers by getting on the wrong side of a judge.

Columnists, on the other hand, are too stupid to worry about the possibility of facing in court the same judge we've second-guessed in print.

I'll probably get another angry phone call, or at least my bosses will, after this column. You see, there's a serious lack of consistency to sentencing around here, with the famous, the well-liked and the well-connected often getting breaks for which the rest of us poor slobs would give our electronic monitoring bracelets.

McKees Rocks boxer Paul Spadafora shoots his girlfriend and ends up in boot camp. With the help of his family, cable TV tycoon John Rigas loots the company to the tune of $1.85 billion. He's sentenced to prison but remains free on bail while his lawyers appeal the ruling.

And now, there appears to be two sets of rules for tax evaders in our region.

One of Washington County's wealthiest residents, William G. Tomko, was recently charged with tax evasion after the feds caught wind of an elaborate fraud scheme used to construct a $5 million mansion in rural Venetia.

Tomko made his millions as a contractor, so he was savvy when it came to writing off work on his estate and making it look like he was working on public buildings throughout the area. While ducking out on $228,000 in taxes he owed to the IRS, Tomko managed to buy a Rolls Royce and a vacation home.

Nevertheless, U.S. District Judge Gary Lancaster figured Tomko had suffered enough in all that luxury. He sentenced the crooked contractor to three years' probation and a $250,000 fine.

Tomko gets to keep all his ill-gotten toys, and he can run his lucrative construction firm while under a brief period of home confinement.

That ruling won't do much to bolster the spirits of Joe Costanzo, a former McKees Rocks restaurant owner who got five months in prison for owing the IRS half as much as Tomko. It would probably shock Gary Harris, 66, the former owner of Conneaut Lake amusement park, who got 151 months of hard time for not paying taxes on $400,000. His partner, Michael Kotula, got six years in the deal.

If this makes little sense to you, the reader, imagine how the people doing the longest time behind bars feel when someone guilty of a similar offense gets off with a slap on the wrist.

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