For years, flamboyant attorney Lester V. Jones turned heads at the Georgetown North restaurant in Bel Air every time he drove down the street.
One day, he would drive a Mercedes to work. The next, it might be his Rolls Royce. If the sun was shining, maybe he'd come into town in a classic Corvette or a restored Thunderbird from the 1950s.
But federal prosecutors Ira L. Oring and Joseph L. Evans told a jury yesterday in U.S. District Court in
Baltimore that Jones was a "spendaholic" who bought his expensive cars with cash he skimmed from his law practice, money he failed to report on his income tax returns.
"If you know your tax return is wrong, and you sign it, you're committing tax evasion," Oring said. "The rest of it doesn't matter.
"Lester Jones told the government that he was making 30 cents on the dollar of what he was really making. . . . Who better than a lawyer knows what it means to sign a tax return under penalty of perjury?"
Defense attorney Stephen H. Sachs countered that the tax case against Jones "really comes down to intent."
"There is not a scratch of evidence anywhere in this case . . . that Les Jones knew or believed he was doing anything improper" when he signed his income tax returns, Sachs said.
Jones is charged with two counts of tax evasion for 1983 and 1984, and two counts of false reporting on amended returns he filed to correct errors on his original returns.
The jury, which heard 2 1/2 weeks of testimony in the case, was to begin deliberations today.
In closing arguments yesterday, Oring said Jones reported slightly more than $150,000 in income for 1982-84, while he routinely skimmed legal fees from clients and spent more than $200,000 in each of those years on personal items such as cars, condos and furniture.
Oring said evidence showed that Jones deposited much of the money he skimmed in personal bank accounts, but used only deposits in his office operating account to show his income for tax purposes.
Evans noted that Jones, whose law practice burgeoned with clients and cases, reported far less in income in the early 1980s than he paid in taxes when he practiced in Towson a few years earlier.
RF In one year, Evans said, Jones spent $35,000 for furniture for his
North Palm Beach, Fla., condo but declared only $51,000 in taxable income.
"The order of magnitude is so stunning, between what he reported and what he earned, that nobody could be mistaken about it," Evans said. "It's preposterous to suggest that he [Jones] didn't know his gross income."
Sachs contended that it was beyond belief for Jones to cheat on his income taxes, yet provide the Internal Revenue Service with copies of all his financial records as he did when an IRS agent performed the 1986 audit that led to Jones' indictment.
Sachs blamed Ronald Dochter, Jones' tax accountant, for making numerous errors on the defendant's tax returns. He said Dochter had information on all of Jones' bank accounts, but failed to read it and crank it into the tax returns.
"Les Jones put all of that information in the hands of his tax preparer," Sachs said. "Not only information for accurate returns, but information that would have set off red flags if he [Dochter] had only read it.
"That evidence screams reasonable doubt. A tax cheat knows these records contain smoking guns. And a guy doesn't put smoking guns into the hands of the IRS."
The defense attorney also said that Jones, who didn't testify during the trial, didn't see anything wrong with his tax returns because he shared fees with associate lawyers, encountered increased expenses in his law practice and was depreciating his historic office building, all of which generated legitimate tax deductions.
Sachs called Dochter, who testified for the government, "the most careless tax preparer in history" and said the accountant was "despicable" for later trying to shift blame for his own errors onto Jones.